Let’s be clear: I am trying very hard not to romanticise. I am trying to do what Lib Dems keep exhorting each other to do, which is keep your feet on the ground, and also keep calm and carry on. Which is tricky. (There’s a lot of things to keep in there.)
I’m definitely trying to not entirely buy into the idea that there is an Establishment, an actual one with a capital E, and it favours the Duopoly, with a capital D, and we, the Lib Dems, are shut out of it because we would mean its destruction, both by reform to the political system, but also just by existing where they think we shouldn’t exist. I am trying not to think all that.
I’m trying not to say things like, “This is how we know we’re getting somewhere.”
But boy. Getting difficult, isn’t it.
First we were given advance warning by David Yelland, former editor of Sun:
Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other. Indeed, it is difficult not to think that the lunatics have stopped writing about the asylum and have actually taken it over.
We now live in an era when very serious men and women stay out of politics because our national discourse is conducted by populists with no interest in politics whatsoever. What we have in the UK is a coming together of the political elite and the media in a way that makes people outside London or outside those elites feel disenfranchised and powerless. But all that would go to pot if Clegg were able to somehow pull off his miracle. For he is untainted by it.
We were constantly assured with much waggling of eyebrows that there’d be “a lot more scrutiny” now. A couple of half-hearted News of the World stories were, I think, the opening salvo on Friday.
Then this from the Mail:
There can be only one credible explanation for the utterly irrational outpouring of support for the Liberal Democrats after a mere 90 minutes of X Factor-style TV politics: the public, disgusted by the near moral bankruptcy of the last Parliament, is looking for revenge.
The electorate are being totally irrational in not voting the way we say! Re-educate them immediately! Sieg heil! The commenters don’t seem too impressed.
A slew of sloppy stories surrounded this central core, attempting to spread misinformation about Clegg’s expenses. The Mail claimed that Lib Dems were “among the worst” expenses offenders, which is demonstrably not true. There was even an attempt to imply that Clegg’s mortgage on his own house in London was paid for on expenses. So far as I know, his second home is in Sheffield and that’s what he claims for – anyone know any different? If not, he is basically being accused of spending his own money on his own house.
And this is what the front pages look like this morning. Open it in another tab. Keep it there in case you need to have another look.
I suspect the Mail need detain us no longer, since it appears to have fallen screaming into a boiling vat of self-parody (Clegg does carry off that pink dress well, though, it must be said). But even the Telegraph, so far as I can tell, is pushing the bounds of credibility. It’s reporting that Clegg received donations from registered donors into his own account, notified them to the Register of Members’ Interests, and paid them out as half a salary for one of his researchers. Which was the purpose for which they’d been intended.
Unless there is something more to this that the Telegraph are keeping back, I am struggling to see what point they are trying to make. I am forced to conclude that they are playing on general ignorance about tax arrangements. An MP, so far as I know, is a sole trader, and employs their own staff. I’m a sole trader myself and I do everything through my private bank account. Of course, many sole traders set up separate accounts for their business, especially if they have lots of income and outgoings (builders, for example). It’s not clear whether Clegg has done this or not, because the Torygraph doesn’t want to tell us. Certainly the bank statements also show mortgage payments on his second home, so it may well be the case that this is a bank account opened specifically for expenses purposes. But even if it wasn’t, there’s no obligation whatever on a sole trader to run items through a separate bank account – it’s not like being a company. A separate expenses account would still be an ordinary current account in his own name anyway (which is precisely why we can’t tell whether that’s what this is or not).
I’m told ITV news were highly unimpressed last night, and this morning they don’t even seem to be running it on their home page, Krishnan Guru-Murthy didn’t think it was a “killer blow” especially given the opacity of Tory office funding, Iain Dale thinks it’s a terrible indictment of the British press which will backfire. Even Nick Robinson reports the view that it’s a smear (22.26pm) and seems to think (see bottom of this story) that Clegg has been badly treated.
Yes, looking at the assemblage of the right-wing papers today, it’s hard not to start romanticising what’s going on here. If we’re upsetting them this much, these press barons and billionaires and opponents of reform, these ghastly, leathery old pooh-bahs of the status quo, we must be doing something right. Look again at those ludicrous front pages – that is how much they don’t want us to succeed. What is it that’s making them this afraid of us, if it isn’t the prospect of getting it in their own corrupt necks?
(In fact, my god, maybe this is how much they don’t want us to succeed. Murdoch’s people can’t really be trying to bully other newspapers into following their line. Can they? Can they?)
And we all know why they’ve had to resort to this. Because “scrutiny” didn’t work. Scrutiny of our policies was supposed to be the moment at which everything Clegg did in the first debate evaporated in a puff of smoke. Scrutiny was supposed to reveal that our policies were ill-thought-out and badly costed, that we weren’t to be taken seriously. Scrutiny was supposed to show, not just that we have policies that some people don’t like (which we do, like all parties, and we’ll take it on the chin), but that none of our policies were worth a damn at all.
That was the plan. It went wrong. During the first debate, Cameron blithely assumed that we had no costings at all set up for the £10,000 personal allowance – and handed Nick a chance to explain them. Afterwards, Cameron admitted he hadn’t read the manifesto, and it was then that it dawned on me – christ, maybe none of them have. Seriously. Maybe they assume it’s just like theirs, and doesn’t have any actual numbers in it. Can the two big parties really have got so comfortable with the idea that the Lib Dems are “useless” and not a threat that they’ve started believing their own hype?
Make no mistake. (See? I’m doing it again. I’m saying things like “Make no mistake.” Any minute now it’ll be “Mark my words.”) These people have come up against the cold truth that all sprawling, inefficient businesses must eventually come across. There’s a leaner, fitter competitor out there who wants your customers, and because they haven’t got an existing custom base, they have to work twice as hard to be viable. Their offering has to be, as Clegg put it of the manifesto, “stress-tested to destruction”. Because that’s the reality of life for a third party in a duopoly system. The big parties spent three days trying to land blows on policy, and only succeeded when they lied about them (there are now people in Britain who honestly believe that it is Lib Dem policy to give the vote to paedophiles).
Hence the wild expenses stories, the ludicrous front page spreads, the incredible spectacle of the Mail incandescent and spinning with fury because the good little peoplebots aren’t doing their masters’ bidding.
The Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Express absolutely do not want you to vote Liberal Democrat. They don’t want to see the first sign that their time has come, that oligarchical politics controlled by billionaires might not be what people want any more. Even after the election, however it goes, we’ll be on their radar. We’ll get an occasional warning shot across the bows if we look like getting important again, while the rest of the time they’ll redouble their efforts to return British politics to stage two of Ghandi’s maxim:
First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you win
We probably won’t succeed this time, maybe not even next time. But everyone knows that the plucky little underdog eventually wins, and no-one knows this better than the national press of Great Britain. That’s why they’re so scared.
The resources controlled by these people are enormous. With odds like this stacked against us, as Terry Pratchett might say, how can we possibly lose? It’s a million-to-one chance, but it might just work.
(Hey, count yourself lucky I didn’t finish up with “We cannot falter. We dare not fail.”)