“Source close to Nick Clegg” needs to stop – now

Paddy Ashdown gave Tim Farron both barrels yesterday. I think it was justified, but there it stops. I believe Tim has now probably learnt his lesson regarding media interviews. There is no need for any more public chastening of Tim. Despite this episode, Tim has provided crucial cover for the party and been an excellent President.

So, Nick Clegg needs to show some real leadership. Stop these ridiculous briefings by “source close to Nick Clegg”. Why not just try talking to Tim, Nick?

Today’s briefing with reference to Sarah Palin is just disgraceful. This “source close to Nick Clegg” is making a fool of themselves. Nick Clegg is starting to look over-defensive and petulant by (presumably) authorising these briefings.

Tim Farron is a highly intelligent politician who is able to juggle enormous varieties and depths of subjects. He has an enormous base of support in the party. It is just ludicrous to compare him to someone who has been depicted (accurately or inaccurately) being shown Germany on a globe.

Update 22:01: Two lines struck through to reflect Sean Kemp’s comment below.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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44 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '15 - 9:46pm

    I appreciate trying to show balance by writing about this, but I really think it is nothing and just everyday gossip.

    We don’t want people from either side to start feeling attacked and then responding. Private words will be seen to be fairer.

  • Trevor Stables 16th Mar '15 - 9:51pm

    Well said ! Matter should now be closed.

  • I’m sorry, but as someone who has been a ‘source close to Nick Clegg’ on numerous occasions the presumption he authorised those Palin comments is daft. I can’t remember a time in eight years working for him when he ‘authorised’ briefings against his own side and the thought he would decide to do it on a day when it would affect coverage for his speech makes no sense.

    Someone, who knows how senior (or not) was showing off and they have been stupid. But can we not simply assume the worst of the party’s leader in this way?

  • Paul Pettinger 16th Mar '15 - 9:56pm

    Other than overstating the Party’s performance in coalition, Tim Farron didn’t say anything wrong. If such blindingly obvious observations can’t be tolerated then little wonder we are so far removed from the British electorate – down to 8% in the latest monthly ICM poll today. It’s Paddy Ashdown CH btw.

  • Thanks Paul. The thrust of your piece is right though – whoever did this has been a complete berk. Does no good at all.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 16th Mar '15 - 10:14pm

    It is one of the ancient laws of the universe that when journalists and politicians are in a confined space, mischief is made. To be very fair (probably fairer than they deserve), this sort of briefing has been pretty rare from our side. When it’s happened, it’s been pretty badly done. Vince and Tim have both been on the receiving end, but it is rare. Remember during the Labour years, inter-necine briefings used to happen on a daily if not hourly basis.

    Having said all that, it is inexcusable that this has been done. There are too few of us to be fighting with each other and we really all need to be focusing our energy on the election ahead.

    The most disappointing thing about all of this is that the Cleggster made the speech of his life yesterday. It was brilliant. It gave us all so many reasons to keep going when we’re all knackered. It gave people so many reasons to vote Liberal Democrat – and what are we talking about? People need to Stop.The.Bitching.Now. We need to be talking about how, when we were in government and the kitty contained a couple of polo mints and the odd 5p piece stuffed down the back of the sofa, we found a way to help disadvantaged kids in school, cut taxes for people on the lowest incomes and really got it on mental health.

    I’m seeing too many examples of Lib Dem colleagues not listening to each other enough at the moment. Time to remember we are all on the same side.

  • Paul Pettinger 16th Mar '15 - 10:18pm

    Paul – could you aIso strike out the bit where you suggested it was reasonable for Paddy to attack Tim for offering the political equivalent of declaring a piece of halibut as fit for Jehovah?

  • Richard Marbrow 16th Mar '15 - 10:57pm

    I’m in the camp of those who think Paddy’s public attack on Tim was not justified as well. And I admire the way Tim has risen above it. And it has made me less likely to take any notice of Paddy’s next exhortation to do more. In fact what did Paddy think he would achieve with what he said?

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Mar '15 - 11:26pm

    Sean Kemp

    I’m sorry, but as someone who has been a ‘source close to Nick Clegg’ on numerous occasions the presumption he authorised those Palin comments is daft.

    Right, so can we have an investigation to find out who it was, and that person gets disciplined? How come it never happens like that? This happens time and time again, someone put down as “a source close to the leader” says something, and it is reported as if that is the current party position, and that assumption continues because the leader never does anything to deny it. When this thing happens, it’s always a disgraceful piece of factionalism. It’s not just this leader it’s happened under either, previous leaders also pushed their own way like this, or at least did not stop their advisers pushing it by naming and shaming them.

    I am fed up of the way our party, which is supposed to be a democratic one, often seems to get portrayed in the media more in terms of what these “sources close to the leader” say than what the party membership says. This is such an illustration of the “Westminster Bubble”: journalists who think politics is just about the leader and his spads in Westminster, and a few other Westminster based personalities, and everything is written up in those terms.

  • It doesn’t really matter. The ‘speech of his life’ by Clegg has seen the party on a massive 7% tonight with Yougov.

  • Clegg may or may not have made the speech of his life the other day, but I bet there is only something like one in ten thousand knows what he said. People on the whole don’t listen to political speeches, they find out about the main points by watching the highlights on the news and reading the newspapers. However, because of Farron stating the obvious at the wrong time, Ashdowns childish attempts to belittle Farron – which would have been authorised by Clegg – and sources close to Clegg making stupid briefings about Farron, Clegg may as well given his speech in a empty room. The LibDems are going into a very difficult GE campaign with splits at all levels. I know it’s stating the obvious, but they really are in a dreadful mess.

  • Jay – the fieldwork for that poll was done on Thur & Fri last week, so before Nick’s speech.

    That said, everyone said Nick’s speech at the Autumn conference was they best they’d ever heard and it didn’t move the polls in any meaningful way.

    Why not make it a rule that anonymous briefings to the press are a party disciplinary matter and journalists would be encouraged to reveal who was making them. When I suggest this I’m usually told that this would make political operations impossible but I can’t recall a time when a “sources close to X” story was to the benefit of the party.

    And I can recall 1997-99 when the party leadership continually said that “sources close to…” stories about deals with Labour were nonsense. The the diaries came out….

  • Again Matthew Huntbach hits the nail on the head:

    “and that assumption continues because the leader never does anything to deny it”

    That’s why:

    “Nick Clegg is starting to look over-defensive and petulant by (presumably) authorising these briefings.”

    Done in Clegg’s name, if he doesn’t refute them, he’ll be presumed to support them. Very easy for Paddy to comment on Farron; easier still to comment on this source. Failing to robustly, succinctly and promptly condemn these kind of briefings actually makes the leadership look weak.

  • Caron, the problem is that the phrase “source close to Nick Clegg” consists of weasel words that mean much and nothing at all. For all I know the journalist could be referring to David Cameron!

    Really when this sort of thing happens Nick Clegg should distance himself with a statement to the effect that whoever made such a statement can no longer be considered ‘close’.

  • I thought the article on Tim was very weak and clutching at straws at most just to have a headline about a leadership threat to Nick. I don’t think it was even worth Paddy commenting on.

  • It wouldn’t be a case of compelling them – but make it clear that anyone giving anonymous briefings was breaching party rules and they were doing it with no expectation of confidentiality. You would never know whether you were just being set up for an expose – or if you ran for leader 5 years later that Michael Crick published that you broke party rules on 30+ occasions….

    Anonymous briefings are one of the things that lies at the heart of distrust in politics, it makes politicians unaccountable for what they say and, like I said, is almost always used in stories which damage the party.

  • Simon Mackley 17th Mar '15 - 8:42am

    Whether he intended them to or not, Paddy’s comments seem to have been taken as an excuse by some in the ‘Stop Tim’ camp to launch a full-blown assault.. You just can’t have a situation where the party’s election coordinator is seen to be taking sides in the contest to come – it’s a recipe for infighting.

    The party leadership needs to disown these latest comments so a line can be drawn under them.

  • [email protected]
    ”We need to be talking about how, when we were in government and the kitty contained a couple of polo mints and the odd 5p piece stuffed down the back of the sofa,”

    Now magically, five years on, the Coalition find buckets of money for government propaganda….er sorry public information adverts on prime time TV, just weeks before an election.

  • Tim Farron..”Right words; wrong time”….. However, any idea that this ‘source’ is acting alone is ludicrous. Firstly we had a party ‘Grandee’ drafted in (shades of Shirley Williams in the ‘top-down’ NHS situation) to remind Tim, and us, of the importance of a party line and now a very personal attack on Tim’s ’embarrassing’ lack of ability to do his job….

    I don’t believe any statement from Nick will undo what has been said/written… I agree with Paul that this whole thing just needs to stop..
    “Least said; soonest mended” as my mother used to say…

  • Caron 17th Mar ’15 – 7:51am
    “…Hywel, getting journalists to reveal their sources is really dodgy. We can’t do that!”

    Caron, you are right to say that.  

    The repeated attempts over the last few days to promote one leadership candidate and demote another will have harmed the party.   Not just in the General Election but long after.

    In an article about the BBC by Nick Cohen which I read this morning, thanks to the link provided by Jonathan Calder, there was this —

    “…In the banks, the NHS, the police or the BBC, the greatest threats to those in charge, however, are not threats to the institution but threats to their status. If subordinates can contradict them, how can they justify their salaries and the prestige that goes with them? The Pollard review into Savile showed that status anxiety was generating real hatred at the top of the BBC.
    A senior BBC press officer vowed to “drip poison about Meirion’s suspected role”. He was later promoted. Peter Rippon said that if Jones spoke freely: “I will throw sh!t at him”.

    The best aspect of modern culture is that it revolts against such hierarchical control. The computer revolution makes information sharing and cooperative ways of working easy to achieve. But hierarchies have men and women at their summits who will fight as ferociously as BBC executives to protect their position, and prevent democratic change.”

    Any similarities with the top of the Liberal Democrats there?

    Paddy is a great campaigner, but his “judgement” has often been poor.

  • John – “sources close to [the leader]” are not people speaking out against an abuse of power. They are people abusing their power. Not promoting any sort of public interest, but rather the (usually very short term) interests of a particular figure.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Mar '15 - 10:13am

    malc

    Clegg may or may not have made the speech of his life the other day, but I bet there is only something like one in ten thousand knows what he said.

    Maybe it worked for those sitting in front of him. I only know what was in it from the transcript that was given here, and, as I said, it came across as pompous waffly politico-speech.

    We need to find a way to promote ourselves differently. There were aspects of the contents of this speech I didn’t like, but that’s not the point I’m making here. I myself want to defend the party against the “nah nah nah nah nah” attacks, and point out that in difficult circumstances we have achieved more than many people suppose of our aims in this coalition, and get the message across that we could do a whole lot more in future if we had more MPs. So there was a lot in the speech I could agree with. But the glib, salesman’s gabble style of the speech just doesn’t work to convince the sceptical – which is something like 95% of the electorate.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Mar '15 - 10:21am

    Simon Mackley

    You just can’t have a situation where the party’s election coordinator is seen to be taking sides in the contest to come – it’s a recipe for infighting.

    This is the reply I have just sent to an email from Paddy Ashdown asking me to list my skills for campaigning purposes:
    “After your crude factional attacks, Lord Ashdown, I have no wish to be actively involved in any sort of campaign that YOU are leading.”

  • Hywel 17th Mar ’15 – 9:50am

    I agree with your comment. I did say —

    “….The repeated attempts over the last few days to promote one leadership candidate and demote another will have harmed the party.   Not just in the General Election but long after.”

    As you say “sources close to the leader” are abusing power.

    I say “sources” because it does not matter if it is Paddy Ashdown, Ming Campbell or some anonymous SpAd – they ought to have better things to do than run around like headless chickens trying to give Norman Lamb a leg up the greasy poll.

    Isn’t Paddy Ashdown still supposed to be responsible for salvaging some crumbs of success out of the general election disaster?
    Did they not teach him in the military that shooting one of your brightest in the run up to the battle might be a bad idea?

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 17th Mar '15 - 12:29pm

    Great support for free speech from all of us on this topic. Well done LDV for a fair posting, well done Tim for honesty [and an obvious summary], well done to those candidates still fighting for election. Unfortunately, I don’t read any items concerning Mister Clegg or his supporters. I don’t believe them. I’m still waiting for the party to regain its values – which are increasingly undermined by whatever team is producing all this stuff – and now in public too. Such a shame!

  • Probably 95% of the electorate would agree with Farron. However the real problem is whether 95% of the public even know about this dispute. My guess is that being the Liberal Democrats they probably would not care anyway, it is a measure of how ineffectual we now are. Do we overvalue our importance in the eyes of the electors and does a certain Lord also overvalue his own particular importance?. Look at our polling figures in the Con/Lab marginals Ashcroft poll today, behind the Greens. Says it all.

  • Alex Sabine 17th Mar '15 - 1:43pm

    @ theakes
    “Do we overvalue our own importance in the eyes of the electors and does a certain Lord also overvalue his own importance?”

    Surely not?! Heretical thought alert…

    What theakes says is true of internal party spats in general, especially those that revolve around personalities or jockeying for position – the more so for the smaller parties. Voters generally don’t notice, and those who do notice generally don’t approve.

    And while voters do form a general impression of political parties’ motives, character and competence – and especially of their leaders – I suspect they don’t pick up on all the signals and subtexts and messaging that politicos like to imagine – whether it comes to internal party disputes or coalition ‘differentiation’ tactics and presentational niceties. There is an exaggerated importance attached to such navel-gazing.

  • As an alternative suggestion, perhaps Nick Clegg could announce exactly which people qualifies to the title of “source close to Nick Clegg”. It would clarify matters if other politicians did likewise.

  • perhaps Nick Clegg could announce exactly which people qualifies to the title of “source close to Nick Clegg”.

    And if a journalist claimed that a story came from ‘a source close to Nick Clegg’ but in fact it wasn’t someone on Clegg’s list, he could… do what, exactly?

    (Presumably issue a statement saying, ‘Actually this source isn’t close to me at all and doesn’t know what they are talking about’, but then he can do that now if he wants).

  • Dav: Yes, of course Nick Clegg can issue a denial, but the greyness of the area journalists exploit reduces the value of this sort of denial. If the sources “close to Nick Clegg” are specified then the journalist might have to resort to claiming ‘a source close to a source close to Nick Clegg’ or otherwise retort that it was one of your specified close allies.

  • Caron Lindsay:

    “this sort of briefing has been pretty rare from our side. When it’s happened, it’s been pretty badly done. ”

    On what basis is it pretty rare? I can think of at least two full-time spads who have worked for Nick for a number of years, who spend their time spreading this sort of poison around the party and the wider press. As you’ve admitted yourself, both Tim and Vince have been on the receiving end of it. When Huhne was around, he was on the receiving end of it, too, and Ed Davey’s certainly been on the receiving end in recent months. I don’t think it’s been rare.

    Like Gordon Brown hiring Damian ‘McPoison’ McBride before him, Nick doesn’t hire these spads completely blind as to what they’re up to, he hires them to get his dirty work done, no matter what the cost.

  • theakes 17th Mar ’15 – 12:55pm
    “…..Probably 95% of the electorate would agree with Farron. However the real problem is whether 95% of the public even know about this dispute. ”

    Theakes, I would be astonished in 5% of Liberal Democrats even know about this.
    Those that do are probably scratching their heads and wondering who Larry the Lamb is and why Paddy prefers him to the only bright, able and effective MP who we can confidently predict will still be an MP on 8th May.

    There are no Liberal Democrat safe seats but unless Mr Lamb has also organised a squad of crack SBS assassins to take him out, Tim Farron will be re-elected in his constituency.

  • If the sources “close to Nick Clegg” are specified then the journalist might have to resort to claiming ‘a source close to a source close to Nick Clegg’

    Why? Why would a journalist have to take a blind bit of notice of any list nick Clegg does or does not announce?

    That’s my point: Nick Clegg is free to name his list, a journalist is free to say that someone not on it is ‘a source close to Nick Clegg’, and all Nick Clegg could do in that situation is say, ‘well, it wasn’t one of the people on my list so they are not that close to me…’

    … which he could do anyway now.

    So what is the benefit of the list? (Except that it would mean that if Clegg didn’t issue the denial then it would narrow done the source to people who are on the list).

  • I suppose if a journalist were to quote, ‘A source close to nick Clegg’ then they could be asked, ‘Is it one of the ones on his list?’

    But clearly in that situation the journalist woul dhave to answer the same as if asked, ‘Is it someone in the cabinet?’, ie, ‘I’m not going to start answering yes or no questions in order to allow you to narrow down who it is; it is a source close to Nick Clegg, that is all you need to know.’

  • Alex Sabine 17th Mar '15 - 6:04pm

    When interviews centre on sources who are close to sources close to Nick Clegg, we are getting pretty ‘meta’ are we not? The Westminster bubble really would descend headlong into self-parody…

  • David Evershed 17th Mar '15 - 6:41pm

    Leaders of organisations find it hard to change its direction and get its people to implement his/her plan. It is even harder to get a clear message about party policy and beliefs across to the electorate. This needs a relentless and constant communication of the leader’s chosen words. Consequently the party heirarchy want everyone pulling in the same direction and a temptation to demand complete loyalty to the party line.

    As the Lib Dems have become more professional, we have required adherence to the party line which can verge on bullying and contrasts with the liberal free speech values of the Lib Dem party. The conflict can be resolved with the self discipline of those in positions of influence. When/if Tim Farron becomes leader he will want his message and priorities to be adhered to and consistently spread. He should wait his turn. But if he makes a judgement that he must speak out against the party line then he should not be bullied by the party hierarchy. Bullying ruins the reputation of a party more than disagreement.

  • The point is that “a source close to…” is pretty meaningless and often means that a politician is ill advised to dignify the assertion with a response, even a denial gives the assertion some credence.

    On these very pages we often see assertions such as ‘Nick Clegg thinks’ this, that or the other, when in reality the author of the comment is actually saying ‘in my imagination, Nick Clegg thinks ….’ which often tells us much more about the author’s imagination than it does inform anything about Nick Clegg. For ‘Nick Clegg’ you can insert many other Party (or non-Party) figures.

    There is a game of ‘what is the worst motivation that can be ascribed?’ which generates heat but little light. The trouble is that journalists are apt to indulge in the same game, sometimes simply to stir things and at other times with a political motive.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Mar '15 - 8:19pm

    Martin

    There is a game of ‘what is the worst motivation that can be ascribed?’ which generates heat but little light. The trouble is that journalists are apt to indulge in the same game, sometimes simply to stir things and at other times with a political motive.

    Yes, and throughout my years of membership of the party (37 years now), it’s always been like this. Journalists are lazy Westminster-bound types, and so tend to report the party solely in terms of the few people they know in it that are part of the Westminster elite. Somehow there always seems to be a few people who don’t have much of a history of activism in the party but have managed to dig themselves in at the top as part of this Westminster elite. Mostly what that sort want is sharply at odds with what the membership of the party tends to want, but because the journalists report the party in their terms, that’s how it comes across.

    The journalists then write up how they think our party should “progress”, and report it in terms of how far it is following what they, in their naivety and ignorance of what we are really about and right-wing bias in most cases, think should be its natural path. So those in the party who don’t want it to go that way are reported in very negative terms, as people who are blocking it, as dinosaur types who just don’t understand.

    Mostly our party has done well when it has ignored all that, and done badly when it’s been influenced by it. The old line that all we needed to do was become a “real liberal” party i.e. Tory economic policy with just a little bit of social liberalism so long as it doesn’t conflict with that, was pushed by various journalists for years and years. So, with the Orange Book and the Coalition, we did just what they said we should do to progress. And now it’s now, and we, er, are falling to bits.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Mar '15 - 9:52pm

    David Evershed

    As the Lib Dems have become more professional, we have required adherence to the party line which can verge on bullying and contrasts with the liberal free speech values of the Lib Dem party.

    So what actually is the point of becoming “more professional”? It’s something Westminster Bubble journalists have been urging on us for years, telling us we need to do it to get more support, and what’s the result? We’re at our lowest point in the polls for 25 years. All the major political parties have become “more professional”, and what’s the result? The general public have been completely turned off, thinking of politics as something remote, politicians as some sort of remote alien force.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Mar '15 - 10:06pm

    theakes

    Probably 95% of the electorate would agree with Farron. However the real problem is whether 95% of the public even know about this dispute.

    No, but that’s the point. The general public just catch the tiniest glimpse of it, a half-remembered “oh, I think I heard the LibDems say this”, or just something so subliminal they won’t even remember where it came from. That’s why though it may be just “a source close to the leader” i.e. a fellow public schoolboy who’s a mate of the journalist pushing his own line, but the general public absorb it as the official party position, as they aren’t looking closely at where it’s actually coming from, in fact they aren’t looking or consciously thinking at all about where it come from, to them it just comes from “the Liberal Democrats”.

    That;s why these people need to be slapped down very firmly … which, of course, they are when they are saying something the Leader doesn’t like …

  • SIMON BANKS 18th Mar '15 - 6:16pm

    A “source close to Nick Clegg” said at the weekend, according to The Observer, that the Tories were almost certain to be the biggest party in Parliament after the election and implied that meant we’d be in coalition with them again. The source said we might lose half our MPs and still be in government. I would have groaned, except I was reading it on a coach. What is the point of talking up the Tories’ likely performance at the expense of Labour? Why stress coalition and not stress there are other possible arrangements? Simply as a matter of canny tactics, why paint ourselves into a corner by making it sound as if we’ll only have one option? It’s an incredibly weak negotiating position. It also sounded as if we were really dedicated to staying in government but not too worried about losing a lot of MPs. It played right into the hands of people who are minded to see us – or present us – as being only interested in power. Oh, and another five years tagged on to the Tories would kill the party.

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