Silent noctural dogs are what I thought of when I read James Graham’s CiF piece on Clegg’s leadership and Paul Walter’s response. The exchange is one of the most useful I’ve read about Clegg since the leadership contest. Essentially, Paul defends Clegg from a number of charges laid by James, who falls into camp critical at the moment:

Yet the party, after a bumpy two years, is a bit frazzled. I’ve been struck by how many people I have spoken to over the past few weeks – candidates, councillors and activists alike – who appear to be either demoralised or disenchanted with Clegg’s leadership.

(It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that much of the negative cast of the piece comes from the title and byline, and these are usually created by the Grauny subs, so Paul might be aiming a kick at the wrong dog there.) James adduces three possible reasons for the disillusionment he observes:

  1. Lack of internal communication
  2. The confused position on Lisbon
  3. The Dark Shadow of party centralisation in the form of the Bones report outcomes

To go about this illogically, I think Paul knocks number three very effectively on the head:

We get someone from the Henley Management College to look at our organisation. They’re used to looking at businesses, among other organisations. Well, knock me down with a feather. They come back and tell us that we need to centralise our decision-making a bit. Staggering.

…and is more trusting than James that Clegg won’t – can’t – try and implement the recommendations wholesale without party consent. A battle still to be fought, there. The Europe canard is also dealt with neatly:

Chris Huhne would certainly have handled the Lisbon treaty exactly the same way as Clegg (perhaps with the odd tactical tweak) – he said as much in the campaign. And I note that James Graham brilliantly exposed the lie that the Lisbon Treaty was in any way a constitution. From that I conclude that there was no reneging of our manifesto commitment.

…though I’d be wary of over-relying on the fact that Clegg was, er, right. Whether we like it or not the entire country – or, ok, the 0.0000003% of it that comments on the Spectator Coffee House blog – is now convinced that it was a “debacle”, a word people never actually use in real life, so it’s a very useful indicator when it does pop up that they’ve been mainlining the Daily Mail and no longer have a brain cell to call their own. James’ whole point is that our position was just too nuanced to ever do us, or the cause of Europe, any good in the papers – not that it was wrong.

Paul is a little less convincing on internal communications:

I am not sure what briefing notes came out before “Make it happen”. But if any PPC cannot extemporise a selling pitch for such a brilliant document, then they don’t deserve to be a PPC.

Absolutely agree with that as far as it goes, but it doesn’t address James’ broader point:

Outside of conferences and training weekends, there appears to be no mechanism for feeding the views of key activists and candidates at the frontline back to command central, informally or otherwise. With no two-way communication, the possibility of grave mistakes being made is that much greater.

We could, of course, remind ourselves that this is still a damn sight more than the other parties get. But it’s still a good point for any party to consider, particularly in the field of communications and campaigning.

Where I think Paul really hits on something is here:

Many have expressed relief that our leadership is no longer an issue in the media. The days of the zimmer frame cartoons have gone. We have a young, vibrant and positive leader. I have certainly noticed how we managed to keep ourselves in the media day after day. It is a very welcome turn of events.

This is a dog that isn’t barking in the night-time. Look at the one big thing that is not going wrong. No-one has made any serious attempt in the media to assassinate Clegg, though you can bet your arse they would have if they hadn’t known that they’d look bloody stupid. Reports of our imminent demise have been noticeably lacking, especially since Make It Happen, even though it’s silly season and there’s only so much mileage you can get out of kicking Labour’s twitching corpse. Don’t get me wrong, a dog not barking is clearly nothing like where we need to be. But it’s further than where we were.

I also think Paul is on to something in suggesting that Cleggmania is in part responsible for any disillusionment that may be floating around. I know someone, a perfectly intelligent, politically aware, er, authoritarian socialist admittedly but of no party affiliation, who thinks that Clegg is – and I quote – just as much of a wanker as the other two. Now, I think much the same of Clegg as Paul does, as “an exciting and intelligent thinker and an earnest leader who deserves our full support.”

But it would be daft to suggest, as plenty of people were during the leadership election, that the whole population would love him and he would be the panacea that turned people on to the Lib Dems. People are just too wary of politician cults now. Anyone who voted for Clegg (and like Paul, I didn’t) and did so because they thought his being a “people person” would automatically translate into public affection and votes was misguided. That was clear all along. The media would never have stood for it.

So, while I think James’ three reasons are great starting points for discussion, the problem with being this high-falutin’ erudite liberal thinker like wot he is is that he has trouble appreciating that people might just have really, really crap reasons for taking the lines that they do.

To go back to my perfectly intelligent  and informed authoritarian socialist friend, she doesn’t like Clegg because of the Lisbon treaty, the Clegg 30 and because he’s “Cameron-lite”. That’s two thirds shitty, facile, undisproveable, media-led-by-the-nose reasons that we have no control over whatsoever, and one third good point but-not-in-the-way-she-thinks. So we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the great majority of any disillusionment with Clegg inside the party, or dislike outside, is anything like as thoughtful, nuanced or sophisticated as the JG/PW exchange suggests.

Don’t miss Pt 2, in which an Outsider makes a Constructive Criticism…

In case you missed it, the Cleggster has been in Afghanistan over the weekend getting shot at. With real rockets. Presumably not accompanied by any of the usual Westminster bubble media hacks – “Nick, would you mind doing that again for the cameras? Yeah, just a bit of a flinch when the great big bang comes… Perfect.”

I don’t tend to write about war very much. It just isn’t very funny. (Actually, that’s not true. I have it on good authority from people who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that it has moments of absolute gibbering hilarity. You couldn’t get through it otherwise. “Shall I take’em out, sir?” “No, corporal.” “But they’ve got a gun, sir.” “Yes, corporal. We’ve got a tank.”)

But the main reason I don’t write about war is because, obviously enough, there isn’t a liberal perspective like there is for every other aspect of policy-making. Liberalism has no answers to offer on a logistical and strategic problem like how to succeed in a theatre of war – though it has a great deal to say as soon as the last shot has been fired. Once you’ve committed to war, as the party did in this case, there’s little to do other than see it through.

So Clegg’s concerns are the universal ones – why isn’t the British purpose in Afghanistan being driven home to the public more clearly? Why haven’t we got a decent strategy for tackling the opium trade? Why isn’t the international community providing more co-ordinated support for reconstruction, without which the whole exercise will have been worse than useless? Why aren’t the troops being paid enough? And why, even after a great deal of improvement, have they still not got enough decent kit? (The answer to a lot of these questions, of course, insofar as they involve stretched resources, is a great big fat “Iraq”.)

But what, I hear you cry, does The Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) make of the party leader’s visit?

“Oh great,” says one poster, wearily, “More vote-grabbing by our dear (wannabe) leaders. Does it matter? Not like we will have a general election any time soon.”

You might just have answered your own question there, soldier. Still, another poster is more forgiving: “Well least he has gone out there to see for himself. More than a lot of MPs have done.”

Others, meanwhile, muse with gentle cynicism on Clegg’s opinion that Afghanistan is “the most important conflict of our generation”.

Poster 1: “Er, until the next one, presumably?”

Poster 2: “Beat me to it. I was going to say ‘Until IRAN!’”

Ah! as General Melchett would say, the healthy humour of the honest Tommy!

I had an email from the Cleggster yesterday. “I’ve cleared my diary for next Wednesday…” he began. Nick, that’s ever so kind, but really it’s not necessary to put aside a whole day to consult me on the future of our national campaigning. Three hours should be perfectly sufficient. And do bring your own pen and paper, won’t you, I’ve lost too many pens over the years handing them out to boys who never return them…

But no, Nick is off to Crewe & Nuneaton Nantwich again, and encouraging the party’s emailing list to follow suit. Typical that the party should start fighting two by-elections just as I manage to land myself two freelance contracts that mean I’m working a five-day week again plus weekendy bits (and just what is this full time work shit? I was happier when I was poor… Actually, no that’s not true at all, I was miserable when I was poor. But I did get a lot more blogging done.) (more…)

A mystery was unveiled at the bloggers’ interview with the Cleggster last week, which has been most excellently written up in full by That Elephant thus leaving me free to flit over the surface in dilettantish fashion.

We were talking about the national media, specifically about how they won’t unkink their anuses sufficiently to actually discuss Liberal Democrat policy, principles or progress in the national consciousness in case they copiously shit themselves with terror (I am paraphrasing, obviously) at the idea that there may be life outside the two-party consensus.

Clegg’s approach, with which I would guess we all concur, albeit with the odd bit of heartening militancy, is simply to find ways round them. The country is full of local newspapers whose reportage people trust far more than the nationals, and whose news editors are only too pleased to bag a briefing with a national political figure. It’s also full of underused town halls for Nick to “beetle around” answering questions at public meetings to which the national media are not invited. And most of all it’s full of real people who only read a national newspaper on a Sunday if at all. Sooner or later, he says, the media will have to take notice of us because we’ll be too big and successful to ignore. And we’ll have done it without them. 

The idea that it’s the national media who are in crisis has a ring of truth about it. Why else would we upset some of them so much? It strikes me that the inexorable rise of the Liberal Democrats is the acid test for the survival of the old-style national media machine. Like quitting smoking the experience is much harder than it looks for them. They need to quit the Two Party Consensus. When and if they admit that the Lib Dems are, er, what they say they are, to wit a national political party, they will have overcome a major psychological hurdle and demonstrated a proper grasp of the national scene. Until then, they just look increasingly bloody silly, covering themselves with the political equivalent of nicotine plasters, scuttling guiltily down the alley for a furtive briefing session with Iain Dale, adopting ever greater contortions to avoid mentioning the fact that the Lib Dems are now pretty obviously in the big time.

The reason this puts them in crisis is that they’re relying on a USP which is now outmoded, and that much they do understand. Clegg told us how he gets his news, it’s just like I do, and it’s not by Reading A Newspaper. He “magpies” it (a rather natty verb, new on me, incorporating elements of both cherry-picking and winging it; use it in a sentence this week why don’t you) from a daily email update that summarises all the coverage of top stories across all the newspapers, from bits and pieces people send him, from specialist journals or magazines, from a glance at the ticker tape. Part of the traditional print media’s successful evolution over the past decade has been the development of news delivery paths that serve that magpie instinct.

But over the next decade or so that will make bugger-all difference if they continue to print – virtually or on paper – stuff that people are ever-decreasingly interested in reading because it bears no relation to their own lives or the lives of their communities. Despite all the bollocks hanging off national media websites, the blogs, comment columns, and other interactive danglers, the message being peddled is the same as it has been for twenty years. Fifty years, even. Newspapers, virtual and papery, are still written as if it’s 1951, when everybody except the Trots, the illegally ballotted budgerigars and those who expired with postwar boredom on the way to the polling station voted for Labour and the Tories (98% was it?), as against 68% in 2005.

Now to the mystery. Apparently, and notwithstanding his wise injunction that there is no point in our getting overly upset about any of this, Clegg had a good rant at the editorial team of a national newspaper not long ago. He pointed out that their politics coverage was totally and utterly incomprehensible to, for example, the constituents of Sheffield Hallam, who voted out their last Tory in the dark ages and perceive the whole question of the “two horse race” entirely differently from the national media. He rattled off to us, probably to them as well, the list of cities across the north controlled by the Lib Dems – Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Grimsby, Hull. Major British population centres where the Liberal Democrats are the ruling party. They’re just not places the media live. They are satellites of unreality to your average political editor, fiddly little anomalous departures from a norm that has remained fixed in Fleet Street perception for half a century.

So which newspaper was on the wrong end of the Clegg effect? I’ve been wondering ever since and today I wonder if I found the answer. It has been pretty clear since December that the national media and its two-party acolytes are absolutely panting to say that Clegg isn’t a success, and they’re being continuously thwarted by the fact that the only real blunder he’s made so far has been in mismanaging the Europe vote (note I say mismanaging; the position itself still looks fair enough from the People’s Republic). But even in an atmosphere of increasing desperation to score any sort of meaningful hit on Clegg, this piece of trying it on by Sam Coates is really stunningly trivial:

Sir Menzies Campbell was always tortured over whether he should use the “Sir” in official Liberal Democrat literature after he became leader.

Ah, ze old compare-to-previous-leader trick, eh? What juicy revelation will follow? Has Clegg punished a local exec member for not standing up when he entered a room? Demanded that he be referred to as The Anointed One in internal memos? Shot a flunkey for underboiling his morning egg? Read on, I can hardly bear it.

So it is nothing short of hilarious that Nick Clegg has decided to adopt the styling “The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP” in his official literature. It appears in his introduction to the new “City Manifesto” (not yet online, but page 2 when it appears).

Really? “Nothing short of hilarious”? Are you sure, Sam? Laughs must be in damn short supply at Red Box Blog Towers. I mean, it’s not even a cheap hit. It’s a flag popping out of the end of a gun with “BANG!” written on it, and I would protest that far from its merely being cheap you couldn’t pay someone to administer it, except that the Times obviously did. I know it’s only a blog and not a real article, but jeez. How long before I read an editorial entitled “Nick smells”, followed up by a point-by-point dissection from Mister Dale and a death-knell-of-the-Lib-Dems-because-Nick-smells opinion piece from Simon Heffer?

So it looks like that little mystery is cleared up.

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We have been for tea and sticky buns in the tippety-toppety corner of the House of Commons (up in the guttering just by the gargoyles) with the Cleggster again. This event was brought to us courtesy of the awesome organisational powers of Millennium Elephant (very impressive for a fluffy toy) and I’m going to write up most of our very enjoyable chat tomorrow (they’re getting more informal the better we get at them, which is pleasing). But I’ll make one note now on Nick Clegg’s assessment of David Cameron, in the light of this unexpected treat in the Times.

Well, Nick’s not impressed. More in sorrow than in anger, perhaps – this is allegedly the Prime Minister in waiting, after all. It’s rather reassuring to hear at first hand that the man one thinks of as being a 2-dimensional PR tosser, constrained from formulating decent policy by both his party and his own daft cocksureness, also comes across much like that in real life.

It’s also interesting to hear a leader thoughtfully dissect another man’s failings away from the bearpit of PMQs. Brown and Cameron seem to take the opposite stance – scream and jabber at each other like outraged teenagers (with apologies to teenagers everywhere) in the House but largely decline to comment on each other when they’re having lunch with the press, preferring to maintain the communal delusion that the two big parties actually still stand for two opposing “ideologies” and it is the method, and not the man, that will deliver the [insert suitable unarguable warm fuzzy word here] Britain needs.

Clegg dispatched Cameron as follows. On civil liberties? Cameron is Janus-faced – against ID cards but he wants to scrap the Human Rights Act? On foreign policy? Living in the wrong decade. On tax? Taking a tremendous risk by foregrounding the 10p band because sooner or later people are going to realise that he has no alternative policy. He has, of course, stated that he will restore the 10p band, but given that other spending commitments are being reined in with Scroogelike insistence by Shouty Plonker HQ, my suspicion is that they’re desperately hoping no-one asks them where the money will come from, and why, if they’re able to do this, they can’t promise to cut taxes across the board.

Our own 10p commitment, of course, is costed and has been for nine months; the only fault I could find with Nick’s performance at PMQs today was that he missed a golden opportunity, when Brown claimed that the Liberal [sic] party had no plans to reinstate the 10p band, to reply OH YES WE DO! Except we’d make it a 0p BAND! Here’s the costed summary – put that in your calculator and smoke it! Tcoh, why won’t he see sense and let me script his questions? Nick holds what he calls an old-fashioned belief that “ideas will out”. So do I, and I don’t think it’s old-fashioned, I think it’s so old that it’s on the cusp of becoming new again – although I could wish we were milking it a little more in our national campaigns (of which more tomorrow).

Nick also agreed with Laurence Boyce, whose question had prompted the discussion, that Cameron will be in dangerous waters with his party the moment he shows any sign of not being able to deliver. Even if we can’t probe the deep divisions in the Conservative party and expose the wormy reality behind that fluffy looking blue oak tree, it will all come out in the wash sooner or later. The loopier element of the Tories tolerate Cameron because they know in their barking heart of barking hearts that only he can make them palatable to the electorate. But they won’t maintain that truce for very long if he starts failing to fulfil his only purpose. They’ll kick him if he falters, and they’ll also kick him if they’re in a tight spot – like government, for example?

Nick also had an interesting reading of Cameron’s comments following their electoral successes on Thursday – he reckons Their Dave sees the electoral success as a double-edged sword, because it has lulled the old guard of the Tories into thinking they don’t have to change or make any further effort of any kind for government to simply fall back into their lap.

And lo! from the Times sketch comes this superb Davism which seems to underline everything Nick set out tonight about cockiness, about lack of substance and about being out of touch:

Yes, I am wealthy. I have a very well-paid job and so does my wife. But I drive my own car, I fill it up at the pumps and when diesel hits 121.9p, which I paid outside Chipping Norton a couple of weeks ago, it really struck me that this whole tank is costing me £10 to £15 more than previously.

Ironic really. Another part of our discussion focussed on how the media were never, ever going to like us and the best we can do is ignore them and reach the electorate in other ways.  Which really means we ought to take this unusual bit of Dave-bashing with a pinch of salt as well. But make hay while the Sun shines, I say.

We have been busy in the People’s Republic with internal affairs of state. Unfinished articles, undelivered leaflets and distinctly under-exercised flab litter the land. Some people even expect us to do some work! So we were working up a nice head of steam to finally blast away at the disgraceful 10p tax band business, now crowned with its final turd in the shape of the Prime Minister going on Channel 4 news last night to tell us everything’s all right AGAIN.

But there have been one too many bloody silly stories lately for me not to saddle up and hunt cretins through the marshes with a great big stick, I’m afraid. First, Piers Moron and his all-singing, all-dancing inane questions almost made me weep with total unconcern, and I was only prompted to care about the whole thing when it became clear that the underwear of a number of newspaper columnists and, hem hem, Tory commentators would be permanently soiled as a result of the incident. And now this student-in-joining-university-political-society-and-forgetting-twenty-years-later-shock-meltdown. For god’s sake. Even the commenters on Conservative Home are questioning whether this merits discussion.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that everyone who has ever been to Oxford or Cambridge immediately pointed out that most politicised students joined several societies, for the social contacts and the chance to hear the speakers. Leave aside also the fact that by no means a majority of the members of any affiliated association were also members of the party in question. Leave aside the fact that Clegg’s name appears on the list only for his First Year and that he would therefore have most probably joined at Freshers’ Fair, a whirligig of fierce competition for the innocent souls of the newly matriculated that leaves even the most single-minded signed up to things like the CU Underwater Frisbee Society, the CU Amoral Sciences Club, the Franco-British Student Alliance (who are they fighting? The Central European Society, perhaps), the CU Guild of Change Ringers, the CU Lindy Hoppers and, if you’re really unlucky, the CU Netball Team (geddit? Think about the merchandise…)

Further, leave aside the fact that it has taken Greg Hands his entire career since leaving the rather small college he and Clegg attended at the same time to notice that Clegg is, what do you know, something rather big in the Liberal Democrat party, and offer his revelation to an astonished world. Leave aside even the fact that plenty of alumni have also pointed out that the officers of these societies are none too bothered about having people’s actual permission before signing them up, and that the sheet of paper in question was marked with various runes by Hands at a time when he was trying to get elected as an officer and was therefore drumming up all the support he could – by fair means or foul, if my memory of these people serves.

No, leave aside all that. Instead, consider Andrew Sparrow‘s hair. No, don’t, that would be mean and personal (and yet it is so strangely fascinating…) Andrew Sparrow is plainly of the opinion that joining the CU Conservative Association is, in fact, exactly the same as joining the Conservative Party. No, really, he is! That’s what his headline says. If he sets the standards for journalistic enquiry in this matter, who is to say what actual question Nick Clegg’s office was asked which prompted his unequivocal denial?

If it was, “Were you a member of CUCA as a student?” then Nick may well have genuinely forgotten, but it was still a bit daft to be that definite.

If it was, “Were you a member of the Conservative Party as a student?” then, well, the answer would appear to be unequivocally 100% absolutely not.

Dirty trick or sloppy journalism? You decide. I’m off to put a few cretins’ heads on spikes.

 Warning: great, big, long and European.

 I have been experiencing several days of bloggus interruptus. No sooner have I finally decided that I understand What Is Going On at Westminster (based purely on my own hyper-inductive powers of imagination, you collect, which may explain why at one stage everyone in a half-finished post was wearing superhero outfits) than some new crumb of incident comes my way and I have to pull the whole lot down and start again. Accordingly, we in the People’s Republic take no responsibility whatsoever for our opinion as it stands this current half-hour, for the impact any future reversals or revelations may have, or for any ducks, geese or other waterborne fowl of a nervous disposition who have the balance of their walnut-sized minds disturbed by the contents of this blog.

I am, I think, clear on one thing. The party line is incredibly simple. The Lisbon treaty is not, by itself, the constitution, and a referendum on it would be both historically inconsistent and a pointless gesture - the full referendum, please, so that we can fulfil our manifesto commitment. I write all this out at painful length because I want people to start differentiating between what is clear and what they agree with. Many of those who are complaining about how muddled the present position is are doing so because, essentially, they think there should be a vote on the Lisbon treaty and it is an a betrayal of the manifesto commitment not to have one. To state the gibbering obvious, “muddled” does not mean the same thing as “inimical to me”. To further state the gibbering obvious, both sides of opinion on the Lisbon treaty can make a reasonable case, and I know this because I have been blown backwards and forwards like a dandelion clock by some very good arguments.

It is by no means clear to me that party policy is a cynical attempt to stop the Lisbon treaty coming to a referendum.  This accusation of double-dealing again tends to come from people focussing on the fact that they want a treaty referendum… and anyone who opposes their wishes must be playing a terribly devious double game, non? Scepticism is a totally unhelpful discriminatory tool when it is constantly set to mach 5 - just look at Sean Gabb. Party policy seems to me to account for itself perfectly well. The constant theme is that a full membership referendum is what people want and I think this in itself is absolutely right. I’m not really much more convinced by Clegg’s MORI results than I am by iwantareferendum’s stitch-up, mind. My opinion is based on the simple self-evident truth that most people wouldn’t care about the difference between the two referenda if they were dressed in different-coloured spangly costumes and made to do a dance-off, and it’s therefore perfectly legitimate to assume that the general expression of desire for “a referendum” is a desire for the Big One – in fact, it’s arguably undemocratic not to make that on-the-safe-side assumption.

Now; my reaction to Ed Davey’s righteous rage in the Commons last week was jubilant. I saw things panning out in much the same way James Graham did, albeit with rather more optimistic whooping. From a position of tabling an amendment that would never get through, we had actually seized an initiative of sorts. On the one hand, it demonstrated the strength of feeling at the top of the party – if not throughout it – for a full membership referendum. On the other, the decision of who to vote with, once it came to be made back in grey reality, was now in the balance, and anything that causes a Tory fretting-frothing-barking-shouty-plonker time is fine by me.

A howl of insistence ensued, both from outside the party and from elements within it, that the Lib Dem MPs back the treaty referendum, and for a short time I was minded to join it. The treaty referendum is pretty obviously a decent second best option to the full shebang, and a considerably number of unusually frothy Lib Dems would have been mollified. Even better, Clegg could use the threat of backing the Tory amendment to put pressure on the government to relent and allow the Lib Dem amendment – which would split the opposition for good and all.

At this point, two more messengers burst through the fifty-foot iron gates and into the Central Sacred High Hall of the People’s Republic bearing further news. One, the Cleggster had reaped the first rather-less-than-glowing headlines of his leadership by cracking a thee-line whip on his party to abstain from the treaty referendum vote (“What? Repeat that at once, scurvy knave!”). Two, Ed “Da Man” Davey told the bloggers that pressurising the government was not a realistic possibility, numerically speaking (“What what WHAT? Take the messenger away and shoot him!”). He was adamant that abstention was the Right thing to do with a capital R. Well, that appeared to bring us back to square one, without an amendment of our own, and at risk of looking more than a little precious for putting a clothes peg on our nose and refusing to back someone else’s as a semi-acceptable second best.

At that stage, I couldn’t see the disadvantage in voting for it – still can’t. Either we back it and the government defeat it, in which case nothing changes. Or we back it and it succeeds, the Tories have shot their rather flimsy bolt and successfully killed a wren with it – well done, guys - and whether the referendum comes out as a Yes or No, we’re still quite entitled to point out that the real issue hasn’t been addressed. Because it won’t have been. Particularly if the answer from the Great British Public is a resounding “No”, as seems likely, because such an answer inevitably begs the bigger question. At which point, we appear to be casually leaning against a tree halfway round the course waiting for everyone else to catch up and nick our policies as per bloody usual.

But then the Labour rebel Ian Davidson threw an entirely new kind of chocolate chip into the cookie dough batch with his altie two-question referendum. And then the Cleggster had that “constructive chat” with the speaker. And then there was the MORI poll which, while I don’t believe for one moment that it actually means precisely what we’re claiming it means, is a sign that a wider concerted effort of some sort is at work. Let’s just imagine for a fraction of a second what it would be like if somehow Clegg could stick to his guns and pull this off – table the amendment again, have it debated, take it from there in the press coverage. He’d be a made man, and so would the party, and the Big Question would be addressed.

It’s quite possible that that’s what he’s gambling on. Something doesn’t quite add up about the numbers it would take to defeat the government, because the Tories sound worried enough to bring out the big guns – William Hague in full slag-off mode in the Sun today. Now, whether Clegg is feeling his way in the dark and trying not to lose Baronness Williams, or whether he is pretending to be Gregory Peck in Guns of Navarone and carrying out a nerves-of-steel planned mission, I see no reason why he needs to put everyone else out of their misery just yet. At this stage it still looks like abstention would be the worst thing to do – I’d prefer the treaty referendum to that and I think I’d prefer a free vote to either. But then I thought last Wednesday, along with everybody else, that Clegg should declare for the treaty referendum immediately, and now I’m glad he didn’t. So I’m rather hoping I’m wrong again.

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Found to be reasonably entertaining by Mr Stephen Tall

Nick Clegg’s performance at PMQs today was all very fine and splendid and a jolly promising opening show and all that business, and it is therefore unfortunate that he also accidentally managed to make me cry, which I am sure was far from the intention.

My flat is on a prepay meter. It costs a bloody fortune. We’ve phoned British Gas about eight times in the past year to try and get it changed to Direct Debit, and every time, they refuse to accept that our flat exists.

“But I buy my gas from you,” I sob, “I know, because my little ‘I am a Second Class Citizen On a Prepay Meter, Shit On Me As Much As You Like’ Card says British Gas on it.”

“Do you mean 116A Alexandra Park Road? Or 116C?”

“No, I mean 116B.”

“We don’t have a record of that property.”

“And yet you have a record of both 116A and 116C. Try the other database.”

Suspicious silence.

“How do you know about the Other Database?”

“I’ve done this before. Go on, have a look. We’re on that one when there’s an R in the month, especially in the middle of the week when there’s a fair amount of cloud cover. I know it’s only Monday but there’s some decent nimbostrata around today, so I say we give it a shot.”

Pause, in which I hear someone hold their thumb over the headset and say “Lisa, she knows about the Other Database. Call Bootle and have them dismantle it and remove it piece by piece to Warrington.” Thumb is removed.

“No, nothing there. Have you just moved into the property perhaps?”

“About a year and a half ago. Never mind, perhaps the surroundings I am currently experiencing are just a mirage.”

Then they say they’ll have to send someone out and register us as being in existence, and we arrange a date and time. No-one ever comes. Ever. And then I ring them up to ask why and the whole process starts again.

pmqs.jpg
Clegg unwittingly summons my personal Despair Squid. On the bright side, note the strong show of support from Chris Huhne, who despite being mostly busy elsewhere sent along his head in a jar.

Bloody Christmas. This year in the People’s Republican grotty grotto we have unemployment, overdrafts, deceased relatives and fathers detained several hundred miles away*. On the plus side, we also have cheese. A lot of cheese. Still, overburdened as you are with all those wry and amusing “looks” taken by newspaper columnists at the ribtickling social implications of Yuletide, you will be pleased to hear that I intend to talk a bit about Nick Clegg’s family panels, rather than my actual family. No hilarious escapades involving a snowball fight, a pool of catsick, an unsteady great aunt and a brussel sprout shortage will be related here (oh, use your imagination). Absolutely no tales of woe about being unable to procure a violet calf-skin Smithsons diary for my god-daughter will ensue, because I don’t have a god-daughter (or, for that matter, a god) nor any inclination to piss away my werewithal on hysterically over-priced luxury goods. Thank you.

No, this is very much a post for families. Last week, James Graham asked Nick Clegg to elaborate on this:

That’s why I will set up a network of real families, who have nothing to do with party politics, in every region of this country to advise me on what they think should be my priorities.

It’s the prospect of continuity that is key to this idea. Nick emphasised that he wanted the people on the panels to feel that they could email him and keep in touch with him. He’s getting at an important truth of political discourse here. Discussions which take place within the ambit of an evolving relationship are always more meaningful than one-off contacts. This is, emphatically, not about focus groups – it’s as diametrically opposed to a focus group as you can get. It’s not necessarily about telling people they’re right about everything either, although this is going to be a tricky one for Nick to pull off without opening himself up to charges of elitism. One man’s robust approach to argument is another man’s arrogance, as this comment on Alex Wilcock’s blog made clear. However, he is better qualified than any other politician I can think of to make a good job of it. This is where the “Would I go for a pint with him?” test may have served us well in electing him.

Still, he’s got his work cut out to persuade the wider media of all this. They’ve heard this reaching-out tack before, and politicians say the word “families” like most people say “the”.** I think Nick can do two things to show them he’s in earnest. First, and most obviously, he can publicise these relationships. That doesn’t necessarily mean a ghastly glitzing-up of every single contact he makes – and that would compromise the development of the relationship anyway. What about a quarterly round robin letter reflecting on what he has learnt and what he has taught, which names names and issues? “As a result of x, I was able to refine my opinion of y. However, I was able to explain a satisfactorily to b, and they now agree with me on that.”

The other thing he can do is flesh out what he means by “family”. If nothing else, doing this will be an important move in the Campaign to Shake David Cameron Off Nick Clegg’s Ankle (banner designs welcome). Step one is clearly to refute the 2.4 children model, and he has already done that, as James Graham describes. It’s a no-brainer for a liberal. There is, howver, a more abstract step two and since it’s Christmas, I’m going to allow myself a little petulant tantrum. When I hear a politician say the word family, I am one of those who switches off rather than on. I stay switched on intellectually, of course, but my heart remains totally unmoved. That’s because my birth family has separated into the individual components of retired couple and grown-up, moved-out children; I’m not in any sort of family unit of my own making; I have no personal reason to give a damn about pupil premiums, tax credits or care homes. I’m in between all of that. And I know that when most politicians talk family, that’s the stuff they’re really talking about.

In the online hustings, Nick said that his family were the most important thing in his life, far more important than politics. That my family is the most important thing in my life is equally true, but only in the sense that it encompasses my college friends family, my school friends family, various work friends families, and my neighbourhood family (flatmates, bar staff at my local, friends of friends living nearby etc) as well as my parents and brother. Now, it’s probably true that I would instinctively dive in front of a bus to save my brother, and wouldn’t perform the same office for Darren the landlord at the Maid (sorry, Darren). But no single component of this family of mine overrides the rest in any practical day-to-day sense. They all help me get through the day. I break bread with them, chat to them, form my opinions with them, say good morning to them. They’d notice if I dropped from view.

Politicians are generally, in the nature of things, part of fairly conventional and visible family units, and it’s easier for them to assume that most people experience family in this way. But really your family is simply the social and cultural forum where you evolve your private and political opinions and sketch out the shape of the impact you make on the wider world. That’s the unit of individuals that Nick could usefully talk to. Because families are self-perpetuating political engines. And it is the sum total of these little social and cultural engines that make up society. Information he feeds into a proper, effective family unit will be processed and talked about as part of its internal life. This is, to my mind, what makes his family panels idea really quite exciting. By promoting continuity of relationships, and by adopting as wide a conception as possible of what a “family” is, Nick can tap into a web of social and political networks bursting with the potential for liberal thought.

UPDATE: I’ve only just noticed that Jonathan Fryer has blogged a measure of justifiable disquiet on this.

* I mean detained on other business. Not at Her Maj’s pleasure.

** That is, often. Not in place of the definite article. That would be silly, and very confusing for Hansard transcribers.

Millennium Elephant brought a copy of London Lite along to the bloggers’ meeting last night, and pointed his fluffy foot to the inch-and-a-half at the bottom of a round-up column recording Clegg’s expected win. That was how much press we got yesterday.

Happily, yesterday’s papers will have gone to press hours before the announcement and this morning is a different story. Here follows a handy aide memoire for the lazy (or just those who want to buy a Danish with their capuccino, and not all the newspapers), lifted from the ever-excellent ePolitix Press Review:

Telegraph

Mr Clegg is a fresh face on the national scene whose manner will incline voters to give him a fair wind. If he is to make the impact that his party desperately needs, he will have to make clear precisely what he means by his promises to deliver “change”, “ambition” and a “liberal future” – words that could have been uttered by both Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Times

Now that the Liberal Democrat primary is over, Mr Clegg should talk directly to the electorate. He must ignore Westminster tacticians and deliver his own agenda. A hung Parliament may be an outcome. It should not be a strategy.

Independent

The Liberal Democrats have elected the younger, more telegenic, slightly more right-leaning of the two candidates. Accepting the job, Mr Clegg set out an admirably concise account of himself. He noted, rightly, that the party has been at its best when it challenges conventional wisdom and consensus. If this is how he intends to carry on, that is an excellent sign.

Guardian

More than anything else, Mr Clegg must define himself as something other than a second Cameron. He will not get far by hoping that the Tory party is found out. He will need to dive into the news with the sort of audacity Vincent Cable showed during his temporary leadership. That has raised the bar for Mr Clegg, which is good. Daring can pay off.

Mail

Mr Clegg must now unite the party and raise his own profile – which will not be easy, judging from a straw poll we publish today, showing he is recognised by fewer than one in six voters… If he fails to inspire, the Lib Dems are back to being what they were for most of the 20th century, a fringe party of protest with no hope of ever becoming a major force in British politics.

Sun

We wish him luck… he’ll need it. Support for the Lib Dems has halved, even with livewire stand-in Vince Cable keeping them in the spotlight. They’re counting on fresh-faced Nick to win back voters charmed by David Cameron’s new-look Tories and grab the balance of power after the next election. 

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