In his Today programme interview with Justin Webb yesterday, Nick Clegg’s intended, unflappable nice guy image was showing the kind of serious wear and tear that can only result from a shortage of publicity muscle and back room support. By turns repetitive and needlessly confrontational (over the question of Italy, for instance, he veered back and forth before tersely interjecting that noting the difference between Britain and Italy was ‘a statement of the obvious’), he answered questions like a man in HomeBase asking after a product he’s forgotten the name of. When you’re getting rattled by Justin Webb, you know you really have a problem.
The conference as a whole seems to have been getting more coverage than any other party conference in recent memory. Journalists can sense the chinks and cracks forming in the lib dem PR armour. All this is fuelled by the #ldconf twitter discussion which is more overwhelmingly negative than even a cynic like myself could have predicted, with some particularly quotable intrusions from John Prescott, who recently responded to journalists irate at accreditation issues with the somewhat inflammatory tweet “Is the #LDConf accreditation crisis at a conference centre proof they can’t organise a p***up in a brewery?”.
This last example may seem minor- journalists will always find something to whinge about when covering an event- but it’s quite telling. This lack of organisation makes more explicit what should be implicit to any communications professional following the conference: clearly, the Lib Dems do not have the money for the PR counsel and management they desperately need.
In theory- and not just in an ideal world, either- this shouldn’t matter. This is because the party have a meme that they’ve tried to put out- summed up, basically, as “Nick Clegg is an extraordinary man, thank god he sacrificed his own ambitions for the good of the country.” If this had caught on, it would have seeded the same kind of homespun, open charm Clegg exuded in the run up to the election. The odd blunder might have been forgiven- there was a time when Clegg got all his capital from appearing human.
However, this was before Clegg stepped into the especially unflattering light which the public reserves for politicians. It was easy, before, to position unpolished, shallowly responsive opinions as the honest alternative to the overly ideological posturing of Brown’s Labour party and the airbrushed simpering of Cameron’s pre-election Tories. However, trying to position yourself in the same ‘awkward barstard’ slot whilst actually occupying the corridors of power is impossible. You’re no longer a crusader: at best you’re a backstabber, at worst you’re a blunderer. Leading educationalist Wes Streeting summed up the mood of the one-time party faithful earlier this week: ‘One your side’ is #ldconf slogan. Should’ve been ‘right behind you – stabbing you in the back’.
In short, the niche that once propelled the libdems into the mainstream has become too complicated to manage without more help than they can afford: awkward not for the powers that be, but for the party members themselves, and no matter how hard they work it will prove difficult for them to attract the kind of major figures they need. Their name is too sullied already to carry the clout that Labour or the Tories might within the communications industry. Come back from Kosovo Alastair Campbell, there’s plenty of work for you here.