The Independent View: Conservatives admit their role in election attacks on Clegg

Back in April, in those heady days after the first televised leaders debate, as news of the remarkable Liberal Democrat poll surge began to come through, Nick Clegg spoke to the members of his campaign team on the phone. None of them could quite believe what was happening, but they agreed on one thing: ‘They’re going to come for us.’

As everyone will recall, ‘they’ did – with a string of lurid newspaper stories, reaching a peak on 22 April, the morning of the second leaders’ debate.  Most Lib Dem Voice readers will remember: ‘Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem donors and payments into his private account’ (Daily Telegraph); ‘Clegg’s crazy immigration policies’ (Daily Express); ‘Wobble Democrat’ (Sun); and ‘Clegg in Nazi Slur on Britain’ (Daily Mail).

Daily Mail front page - Clegg in Nazi SlurAt the time, there was a suspicion that many of these stories had fed to the press by Conservative HQ, although the Conservatives firmly denied their involvement.  However, whilst researching The British General Election of 2010, Dennis Kavanagh and I found that they were now privately prepared to accept their role.  ‘We did a pretty comprehensive job on them,’ admitted one of the Cameron team, ‘however dirty it was… That was the machine swinging into action’.  All but one of the stories to feature on newspaper front pages on the day of the second TV debate came from Conservative sources.

Did this tactic work?  It’s easy to ridicule the nature of the attacks (as #nickcleggsfault famously did), but the truth is that they had more impact than was realised at the time.

For one thing, the various claims tied up resource that Cowley Street simply did not have to spare.  The stories that made it into the press were a tiny proportion of those that were thrown at the party, and whilst the press office in Cowley Street (which, incidentally, had no doubt where the stories were coming from) felt able to rebut most of the attacks, they ate up precious staff time.  The Telegraph story about Nick Clegg’s donations, for example, required three staff for the best part of an entire day (including Jonny Oates, who had to withdraw from that day’s debate prep), burrowing through piles of personal bank statements until the story could be disproved.

And even if the bludgeoning, personal, tone soon dropped off, for the rest of the campaign the policy attacks continued – and were effective.  In 2010, the Lib Dem were subject to a more serious examination of policies than ever before.  Conservative private focus groups found that whilst awareness of the party was noticeably up (as was approval of Nick Clegg personally) there was also growing disapproval of individual policies, especially on immigration and Trident (‘not that important overall’, said one Conservative strategist, ‘but important to our people’). Labour focus groups found something similar: awareness of, and hostility to, the Lib Dem policy on immigration grew, along with (what one Labour strategist called) the ‘discovery that these nice Liberal Democrats were going to take away their tax credits’.

As one member of the Lib Dem campaign team remarked, there are two tests of a manifesto. ‘Does it fall apart under pressure, is it properly costed? And it passed that test. The second test is: is it popular? Nick put forward a well-thought-through case for an alternative approach to immigration. But it wasn’t popular, as we learnt to our cost.’ Or as another key member of the Lib Dem team remarked, more bluntly: ‘This is a party that spends five years writing 35 policy papers, and nine months writing a manifesto, and it manages to come up with just one policy which wins votes, two policies which lose votes, and 7,000 policies that no one gives a flying fuck about.’

The lesson for next time, in 2015 or whenever, is that getting taken seriously has consequences. The Lib Dems will fight the next election as a party of government, with the consequence that policy pledges made will be scrutinized in a much more rigorous way – and, yes, that will involve distortion and misrepresentation. The Party needs to be ready for more of the same treatment at the next election, and plan accordingly.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham and author (with Dennis Kavanagh) of The British General Election of 2010, just published by Palgrave.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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48 Comments

  • toryboysnevergrowup 5th Oct '10 - 3:23pm

    Pity the Press missed the true headline “Nick doesn’t believe his Party’s Economic Policy”. Perhaps the Press’s lies did you lot more good than the truth would have done?

  • …And you will also be scrutinised on the most basic tests of all:
    – What did you say you’d do and haven’t?
    – What did you say you’d do and did the exact opposite on?
    – What effect have you had on my wallet?
    – Why should I vote for you and not someone else?

    On each of those measures, at this point, you have failed. Hence why the electorate continues to desert you.

    Unless you can rectify them – you will be crucified in 2015.

  • Ben Johnson 5th Oct '10 - 3:33pm

    Both Tories and Labour carefully avoided making too many policy comittments whilst in opposition, apart from a few flagship manifesto promises. This prevents unpopular policies from being constantly used against them during the election. It also allows them to focus on a small number of key policies, which people might actually remember.

    It is very important that policies are still developed by the party, so we retain a distinct identity. However, my experience in South London is that most people vote for a party based on a gut feeling or perhaps one or two policies, rather than detailed manifestos.

  • Grammar Police 5th Oct '10 - 3:33pm

    @ Cuse – *in your opinion*.

  • Paul McKeown 5th Oct '10 - 3:53pm

    @Cuse

    Try harder next time.

  • @Grammar Police – you’re right. In my opinion. What’s yours?

    @Paul McKeown – try harder at what? Posting something which you ignore?

    I’m glad you take it so lightly that you have no ability to respond. Liberal confidence must be sky-high.

  • Sorry, posted that before I’d finished!

    An interesting insight on the election. I seem to remember that the second debate was the one where I wasn’t sure Nick did so well, but given the prep seems to have gone awry then that’s not really surprising.

    It also shows how easily the election could be skewed by a really efficient Tory press machine,

  • Nice article.
    The LibDems are doing ‘something’ in the Coalition which in sunnier and FAR less cynical times would have been viewed as ‘in the National Interest’. Now there is NO national Interest in anyone’s lexicon UNTIL the substance hits the fans as it has, and then everyone has a sudden and quite unpleasant WTF moment.

    Responsibility is the ONLY ‘valid’ reason for a Party to exist. If what you are saying appeals only to a slim segment of the electorate and you simply don’ t care, then you are either playing at revolutionary politics or just playing, period. My guess for many complaining soft LibDems, is it is the latter. I have been frankly pretty impressed with LibDem performance in the new Coalition. Not only the Cabinet types but the Party MPs themselves who have shown more than a little ‘spine’ when it was really required. Now if you could just do something about that unfortunate Windmill Fetish you have in the Energy area, the Party will be quite ‘grown up-ish’. Quite a BIG step in less than 6 months.

    Anyhoo I REALLY liked this sentence in your article. Brilliant.. It should be the ONLY thing taught in politics 101. The rest is background noise.
    “‘This is a party that spends five years writing 35 policy papers, and nine months writing a manifesto, and it manages to come up with just one policy which wins votes, two policies which lose votes, and 7,000 policies that no one gives a flying fuck about.’

  • Grammar Police 5th Oct '10 - 4:52pm

    @ Cuse – the best response to trolls is not to feed them, so excuse me if I’d rather be out on the doorsteps helping people to improve their areas, rather than responding to you in detail.
    There’d be little point anyway, you’ve made it clear that the only reason you’re on this site is to blindly criticise and attempt to bait . . .

    Ps I’ll tell you what my opinion is though; the phone canvass results I just got back this afternoon from my ward don’t tell me the story you’d want me to believe.

  • David Allen 5th Oct '10 - 6:03pm

    Same old Tories. Rogues, vagabonds and thieves. The “law and order” party who, a century ago, thought it was a great idea to steal 5 years in power by forging a scandalous letter to their opponents from the Russian Communist Zinoviev. They are now showing the same deep respect for liberal democracy with this avalanche of successful dirty tricks. Supported, of course, by Murdoch and his placeman at the heart of government. The BBC acts as a fairly independent voice, but they will be muzzled within this parliament, as the Tories move toward the elimination of an effective free press.

    Our new best friends. Really? When will we wake up?

  • The Lib Dems will never be a party that makes policies just to appeal to voters because of the way the party decides on policy ie party members deciding policies at conference.
    However, there is perhaps an argument for focusing on certain policies ie the ones that matter to people.

    In relation to our immigration policy, for me the strongest point was that we actually HAD a policy aimed at tackling the situation on the ground, whereas neither Labour or the Tories proposed any solutions. Perhaps this wasn’t banged home enough.

  • Olly is quite right about the power of Murdoch. If the Tories look as though they are going to do things that compromise the independence of the BBC, or favour News International at the expense of public service broadcasting, which is quite clearly what the Murdochs have been working towards for years, then we have to red line that and walk away from coalition if the Tories won’t back down. We cannot contemplate an American style media in this country – I hope.

  • So what does “plan accordingly” mean. There is a syndrome in the party which I call “the one dodgy policy” approach. This is basically that if it wasn’t for policy X which we were attacked over (a lot) then we would have won a lot more votes and seats.

    In 2005 it was votes for criminals/LIT. So we dumped both of those

    In 2010 it was migrant amnesty/Trident/Tax credits. Different policies, same result.

    If we dump those the problem doesn’t go away – it will be something else next time. That’s way a “policy review” approach isn’t the solution. We are a radical, left-ish of centre, liberal party. There will always be policies that leave us open to attack.

    The strategy for dealing with these was (in debate 2) “People are trying to scare you because they don’t want change, don’t let them” (a good approach as it sidestepped the detail)

    However, did the attacks impact that much. My recollection of the polls (which seems confirmed by a check on UKPolling) is that we came down from a bit of post debate froth (ie the 1st place, 34% stuff) but had still had a significant bounce from the polls going into the last week/few days. I’m not convinced that these attacks were responsible for the last 24 hours decline in our vote.

  • Cuse you claim to be an ex Lib Dem who has joined Labour, yet you never seemed to post on LDV until you joined Labour – funny that.

  • Hywel – so what was responsible? Serendipity?

    Rebecca – agree, of course, that we must retain our policy making framework and our principles. But look at Dougf’s post earlier. There’s a man who would have us down the NuLab line “because it’s realistic and ‘grown up'”.

    Dougf – Please realise that we are a different style of party. Time was when Labour and Tories had very different political cultures. There is still a difference, but not so great. Yes, our opponents in the press have great power, but that does NOT mean we should just roll over every time we are attacked. We must prepare and rebut forcefully.

  • So we have at least a partial confession that the Tories planted stories in a paper owned by a tax dodging Australian-American (The Sun), a paper whose editor is paid over £1 million per year (The Mail), a paper owned by tax dodgers (The Telegraph) and a paper owned by a pornographer (The Express). They must be so proud.

  • It is difficult to say how much impact the attacks had….as people have noted, the decline in the vote seemed to come later and may well have been because our vote was flakier. However, it does encourage me to think that we should insist on wider dispersion of press power.

    I also share the view that we shouldn’t change policy just because it came under attack (and perhaps wasn’t that popular). One of the points which distinguishes from the other parties is that we care more about the policies than about having power – we lost the battle on immigration but I am sure we will win the war because the current policy is unsustainable.

    If we followed this advice, we would have abandoned our distintive liberal policies on crime which are now being implemented by Ken Clarke….

  • I am also one of those ex LibDem supporters who didn’t post on this or any site because I was happy supporting the LibDems until they formed the Coalition and Nick Clegg announced he had changed his mind about the timing of the cuts before the election but didn’t tell us. This has affected me so much that after much soul searching I very recently joined the Labour Party. I get the feeling from this site that the current LibDems are not interested unless you support the party blindly and without question.

  • Simon G,

    Here here. Well spoken.

    Note that Cameron’s press officer is on secondment from the Murdoch Empire (his journalists having been caught hacking mobile phones on his watch). Michael Gove is a former opinion writer for the right-wing broadsheets, where he aired his socially authoritarian and neo-conservative views. The strings attached to Cameron’s body take a well-charted route from Downing Street to the country clubs of Fairfax County.

  • BB,

    Has no Labour poltiician ever “changed his mind” about policy? Harold Wilson on the Common Market? Tony Blair on the bomb?

    If you lead a political party, you support that party’s policies. If you go into a coalition with another party, you have to support the coalition’s policies, even if they differ from those of your own party.

    Your complaint is based on a misunderstanding of how Parliamentary democracy works.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Oct '10 - 11:30am

    “Has no Labour poltiician ever “changed his mind” about policy?”

    Read what the poster wrote again: ” Nick Clegg announced he had changed his mind about the timing of the cuts before the election but didn’t tell us

    Do you really think that kind of behaviour is defensible?

  • David Allen 6th Oct '10 - 12:03pm

    “If you go into a coalition with another party, you have to support the coalition’s policies, even if they differ from those of your own party.”

    The old independent Lib Dems used to have plenty of robust debate with individuals of all “ranks” willing to debate and dissent from the official line. The Tories did likewise and they still do. Far too many Lib Dems now seem to think that they are muzzled by some vague notion of collective responsibility, even as they watch the Tories make it all up as they go along (for example, the sudden re-emergence of the marriage tax break we were boasting we had got scrapped!) No, we do not have to be silent.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Oct '10 - 12:17pm

    “for example, the sudden re-emergence of the marriage tax break we were boasting we had got scrapped!”

    I don’t understand this. What’s in the coalition agreement is a provision for the Lib Dems to abstain on this. Surely the implication has always been that it was going to happen.

  • David Allen,

    “No, we do not have to be silent.”

    We members don’t. We can say (more or less) what we think. Ministers of the Crown are in a different position.

  • Anthony Aloysius St ,

    While the convention that Ministers of the Crown must pretend that government policy equates to their own personal beliefs obtains, contortions of this kind will be inevitable. Nick Clegg had little choice but to say what he did (other than to keep out of the Coalition, that is).

  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Oct '10 - 1:49pm

    “Nick Clegg had little choice but to say what he did”

    You’ll have to be more specific. Do you mean when he said early cuts were “completely irrational,” or when he said he had always been in favour of them?

  • Anthony Aloysius St ,

    Nick Clegg was required to support two differnt positions on the deficit, one as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the other as Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition government.

    It is perfectly reasonable to argue that the Liberal Democrats should not have agreed to be part of the Coalition on the basis of the Conservative deficit reduction policy, but that is a different issue.

    Unlike the Bar Council, Parliament has no comprehensive code of conduct that limits what Ministers of the Crown can and cannot be made to say.

    I most certainly wouldn’t want to be put in Clegg’s position.

  • @olly
    “It is about time that non-Conservatives iin this country made a concerted attempt to control the media”

    Well, as the larger of the 2 main parties of the left, perhaps the Labour Party should have a go. Oh no, wait a minute, didn’t Murdoch support them for pretty much the whole of their 13 years in power and bit more before?

    “seem to be geting into a situation in this country when politiciians and even the police are intiimidated into not dacing to News Internationals tune”

    Umm – think that happened long ago under Labour, “disagree and we’ll destroy you in the media” – wasn’t that the modus operandi?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Oct '10 - 3:09pm

    Sesenco

    “Nick Clegg was required to support two differnt positions on the deficit, one as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the other as Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition government.

    So what?

    There was absolutely nothing forcing him to say he’d been lying during the election campaign. If he couldn’t say something truthful (and grown-up) up like “This wouldn’t have been our policy but it’s a joint programme that’s been arrived at through compromise and which we are supporting,” then he could just have said “I’ve changed my mind.”

  • Anthony Aloysius St ,

    Nick Clegg has never once said he was lying during the general election campaign. He may have intimated that he was supporting a policy that he did not personally favour. What is wrong with that? All politicians are put in that position at some time in their careers. Unless they are members of the Party of Labour of Albania.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Oct '10 - 5:57pm

    “He may have intimated that he was supporting a policy that he did not personally favour.”

    He said early cuts were “completely irrational” and that was so obvious an eight-year-old should be able to see it.

    If in fact he believed the precise opposite – as he now says – then he was lying. To try to portray it as anything else is just sophistry.

  • David Allen 6th Oct '10 - 6:20pm

    OK Anthony, you’re right about the marriage tax break, the bit they are making up is the idea of extending it to higher rate taxpayers, and I guess they’re free to make that up, always assuming Nick won’t kick. I just thought I’d read about marriage tax breaks somewhere in one of those “Ten Million Crazy Right-Wing Policies Abandoned By Order of The Ruling Liberal Democrats, Cue Hysterical Applause” documents we put around.

  • Anthony Aloysius St

    “If in fact he believed the precise opposite – as he now says – then he was lying.”

    He was not lying. He was following the convention that party leaders and Ministers of the Crown express their support for party or government polciies as personal belief in them.

    “To try to portray it as anything else is just sophistry.”

    Like the distinction between murder and manslaughter, perhaps?

  • Anthony Aloysius St

    Why don’t you direct your fire at the policies, instead of quibbling about what so-and-so did or didn’t say?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 6th Oct '10 - 7:48pm

    Sesenco

    Believe what you like. I’ll stick to believing that if someone tells me something he knows to be untrue, he’s lying.

    And if you really consider it a “quibble” when someone complains about a politician lying in an attempt to win political power, you’re even more out of touch with reality than I thought.

  • Anthony Aloysius St,

    I suppose I could repeat myself 500 times, but I’ll make do with one more shot.

    Nick Clegg did not lie. He advocated (1) the policies of the Liberal Democrats and (2) the policies of the Coalition government. That is precisely what a party leader and a Deputy Prime Minsiter are supposed to do. And he did it according to the methodology that flows from the Parliamentary convention that MPs and Ministers of the Crown speak about party or government policy as if it is their personal belief.

    You are judging Clegg by standards and rules that are simply not applicable.

    New subject please.

  • David Allen 6th Oct '10 - 11:08pm

    Sesenco, Anthony,

    Can’t we try to concentrate on points of agreement rather than disagreement? Maybe I should change my refrain. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men argue amongst themselves”.

    My own take is that the volte face over cuts at election time was one of the lesser sins. Cable had long telegraphed that at some point we would have to stop the support packages and start the cuts. To make that change at an election made sense, always assuming you believed in making the change. On the other hand, I agree with Anthony that Clegg was quite unnecessarily mendacious about it. Instead of bleating about Greece, he should have said that it was time for a new broom and a new policy, and that he had agreed to bring cuts forward a little in order to make a coalition work. And then he should have asked for some return flexibility from the other side. (Oh sorry, I forgot, there is nothing Osborne can ask for that Clegg didn’t want to concede and augment!)

  • Anthony Aloysius St 7th Oct '10 - 12:54am

    Sesenco

    You can repeat yourself 5000 times if you like. It won’t change the facts.

    Nick Clegg told us, when he was looking for our votes, that early cuts would be “completely irrational” and that that should be obviously to a child of eight.

    Now he tells us that he believed all along that early cuts were the only way to go.

    Apparently your argument is – to put it in its simplest terms – that as a politician lying is his job, so it’s not really fair to criticise him for it. I reckon you’re absolutely wrong about that. When politicians lie to the electorate it’s an absolute negation of democracy. Plenty of politicians have found it possible to be honest and principled, albeit at the cost of unpopularity within their parties, and even at the cost of electoral failure.

    You say you think there’s a “convention” that requires politicians to lie to the electorate (or at least excuses the lies they tell). I think you’re quite wrong. But in any case, if there were such a convention, then it ought to be be roundly condemned, not defended by people describing themselves as Liberals.

  • Grace Goodlad 7th Oct '10 - 11:40am

    There *used* to be a team permanently working on rebuttals. Why not this team? It isn’t as if it was the first time in politics that one lot made up nasty untrue stories about the other lot.

    Sounds more to me like very, very poor planning in CS.

  • Lisa Ansell 9th Oct '10 - 3:40pm

    As I recall- Lib Dem donations skyrocketed after that highly visible attack. As did Lib Dem poll ratings. ‘I agree with Nick’ was the mantra of the week.

    Nick did quite well out of it. Was very clear he wasn’t a Tory. Shame he didn’t tell everyone that he actually was- or tell anyone when he changed his mind about his entire economic platform.

  • The vociferous media reaction to Clegg in the days after the April debates was seen again when Ed Miliband was elected leader at Labour’s party conference. Why do they behave like this? Perhaps it sells more newspapers – though the BBC were almost as bad. Perhaps it’s negative reaction to an outcome which differs to the prediction they’d given to their audiences.

  • Keith LePla 11th Oct '10 - 6:19pm

    My take on our immigration policy is that when this was discussed with people on the doorstep during the election and afterwards, they most often moved from “we are against your immigration policy” to “well that sounds alright” once our actual policy was described. This was confirmed by others who were active on the doorste

    Media (Conservative) attacks were most often vague attacks on Liberal Democrat “flakey immigration policy”. We who rely on the power of reason forget that too many people are not interested in detail and can be misled by vague abuse from unscrupulous Labservatives

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