Opinion: Now’s your chance, Nick

Dear Nick,

I know you’re knackered, and that you’ve spent the last two months running yourself ragged in this leadership campaign. God knows why. Well, I guess there are 511 reasons why (though it’s mainly ‘cos the party exec reckons leadership campaigns should be run like by-elections, frantically keeping the party four-square in its comfort zone, appealing to its own electorate).

But, whatever the margin, you now have your mandate. You have been democratically elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. Now you must lead.

You must grab the agenda, and make it your own. As Vince Cable has, both with Northern Rock and with the official Saudi visit – and as Chris Huhne did with Labour’s donations-gate – you must elbow your way into the headlines. Thoughtful policy wonk speeches are all very well. But they are no substitute for getting a liberal agenda into the pages of the Daily Mail, or appearing on Strictly Come Dancing. You must do both.

If this leadership election has proved anything, it is that the party wants to be – and be seen as – more spiky, less consensual, more radical. ‘Safety first’ might have been enough to secure an internal leadership election; it isn’t good enough for national leadership of the party.

You must straddle the impossible divide: be taken seriously by the Westminster village media commentariat – whose verdicts of effective leadership are ridiculously informed by the infantile pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions – but not be absorbed by it. Recognise there is a world beyond Westminster – beyond London – where real people live and work, and show that you and the Lib Dem parliamentary party are a part of that world; not apart from it.

Ming Campbell promised to be the ‘pin-striped radical’, who would ‘rattle the cages’ of the party. His leadership failed to live up to its slogans. You, Nick, must live up to, but go beyond, those slogans.

The national party membership wants you to be different, edgy, radical: it is up to you to use your mandate to link the Lib Dems’ preternaturally anti-establishment credentials to the policies we would implement if we were in government. Easy? Of course not. Impossible? No. Vince has shown how. Speak with confidence, inspired by our liberal values, and the headlines of the media and trust of the voters will soon follow.

You have nothing to fear but fear itself: in your case, it (occasionally) manifests itself as waffle in interviews. Be disciplined: you may despise yourself for repeating yourself – but realise that a constant, truthful message rammed home is vital to establishing the party as a credible contender. We must be mainstream, but never boring. If ever one of your advisers recommends caution trust your own liberal instincts, not their PR-honed blandishments. Don’t be afraid to go it alone: yes, be grateful to those who got you where you are; but don’t be afraid to do what you know to be right, and sod the consequences.

You start from an ironic position of strength: your under-performance as a leadership candidate has served to tamper down the over-hype some of your more enthusiastic supporters wilfully indulged. A better campaign might have led to deferred disappointment; your disappointing campaign must now result in deferred joy.

The next decade as the leader of the only liberal, progressive party in British politics is yours; but you have only a short while to prove that you have what it takes. You must seize the agenda before it’s seized from you. That’s your challenge, that’s your opportunity. Please don’t let us down.

With all good wishes,


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This entry was posted in Leadership Election and Op-eds.


  • The more I think about this, the more I am pleased that it was a really close win.

    If he had won by a huge margin, it may have led to some slight complacency. Whereas, I think that this will mean that he needs to go out there, work hard, and prove himself to those who didnt vote for him. This is no bad thing at all, and I am convinced he will do it.

  • What your new leader can do for you, but what you can do for your new leader.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 19th Dec '07 - 7:15pm

    The dog that didn’t bark.
    I am amused at the flood of gratuitous advice being offered to Nick Clegg by party activists; that must be why our leaders have such a hard time, everyone thinks THEY know better how to do it than the person they have just elected to be LEADER.

    Even a patronising letter from Stephen Tall before he has bothered to make polite reference to the “defeated” candidate.
    This is all the more significant in a party that purports to believe in Fair Votes and PR, but in this case is happy to declare a whisker majority as a “mandate”.
    Only some 250 people in 41,000 need have voted the other way for a different result. Apparently FPTP is OK in some circumstances.

    And no bloggers have mentioned the 20,000 who didn’t vote, or asked why.
    Judging from the You Gov survey, where Charles had the top vote of leadership candidates if neither of the above were standing, the answer lies in resentment at the manner in which the parliamentary party ditched Charles.
    I think before we rush to extol our new leader and deluge him with our own plans, we should have a hard look at the election figures.

  • Steve Comer 20th Dec '07 - 1:41am

    A good posting Stephen, just a couple of points:

    “The national party membership wants you to be different, edgy, radical:”
    I think that’s true, but is that what the Lib Dem MPs want from a Leader? Too many appear to have been infected by the Westminster Bug! Nick says he wants to get our more, so should the other 62.

    “…fear itself: in your case, it (occasionally) manifests itself as waffle in interviews”. It did on Newsnight yesterday, Nick kept asking Paxman to’hang on a minute’ then waffling for another 3 or 4.

    Its not enought just to tell evryone you’re the great communicator, you must show it.

  • Yes – this “hang-on-a-minute” gambit needs to end. It seems to be part of every PR’s briefing notes these days and of course it’s Cameron’s favourite line.

  • Sorry folks, he’s not the magic bullet; people who supported us, largely because they liked Charles, are still disillusioned and probably won’t vote at all at the next election.

  • So “Cameron’s a vapid, unprincipled joke trying ineffectively to breathe life into dead ideas” is he?
    Sounds like he’s got that much in common with Nick Clegg. If I hear that vague quote about ‘a child born in the poor part of Sheffield’ once more I’ll scream!
    I remind you that Nick represents a seat in the rich part of Sheffield that was historically Tory pre-’97. Liberals did once come close in Hillsborough – but that was way back in 1983!
    Clegg = Cameron mk2 I’m afraid.

  • …er umm…hang on a minute. 🙂

    Look (another rhetorical flourish I don’t much like) — it’s not brain-shortedness which leads to comparisons with Cameron, who in his turn was compared with Blair. Of course, content trumps style for activists. But not for the media and, I would argue, not for most voters, though few would admit it. After all, Ming was first class on content. Under Clegg, we’ve an opportunity to present — market even – our content appealingly to the whole universe of future voters. Incidentally, some of them will have been attracted initially to Cameron (or Blair). I don’t think we want to call them terminally facile.

  • By the way, I completely agree with this:

    Matters like sexual orientation are just a non-issue for his generation. That instinctive tolerance, that instinctive pluralism, is what he hopes to exemplify in himself as leader, and what he hopes will draw minority votes to us.

    Exemplifying is MUCH better than stating. And successfully carrying it off relies heavily on the listener’s perception of authenticity. That’s where Cameron has been failing, with all his little rhetorical tricks (and, yes, INauthentic policies, to be sure). IMHO, our man is the genuine article. That fast instinctive and honest “no” on the Beeb yesterday (on the god question) was a superb example. And I suspect he’s being rewarded in most people’s perceptions. More of that and less “hang on a minute” will pay major dividends.

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