Friday, December 14, 2007


A Vote For Chris (featuring Chris’ answer to a nasty question you’ve probably seen elsewhere)

The ballot for the new Liberal Democrat Leader closes tomorrow: there’s still time to send your vote by special delivery or deliver it by hand if you’re in London. But if you’ve left it this late, then how to cast it? A vote for Chris Huhne is a vote for the Liberal Democrats to be noticed. My lovely Richard has said throughout this campaign that the candidates’ most often-used soundbites are the wrong way round. Nick calls for us to step outside our comfort zone; well, the Leader most likely to make us get up and get spiky is Chris. Nick is a nice man, and we’re a nice party; we’d be comfortable with him. I’m not at all sure Chris is a nice man, but he’ll drive the party into the headlines rather than keep us comfily passive.

Ambition, Detail and a Hungry Bastard

I came into this campaign undecided and have remained so until late, this week (as the deadline loomed) often switching from hour to hour, but, seeing how much Chris has improved since his Leadership bid last year and seeing how he’s made the running, I’ve no doubt he’s had the more impressive campaign. In both this year’s and last year’s Leadership contests, Chris has unerringly found the issues that get attention, and in politics you need the killer instinct. Last year, I hoped Ming might be as fearsome as Francis Urquhart; well, Chris is not a clever plotter who will stab you slyly in the back like that. He stabs you in the front and makes sure the cameras are there to see it. He may not be liked, but he gets noticed in a way that Nick’s campaign has been entirely hopeless at doing. Every Liberal Democrat in the land is surely sick of us never getting a word in edgeways – well, Chris looks like the answer to that wish (but be careful what you wish for). He’s said we need to set the agenda, to pass the ‘so what?’ test, and he’s done that in this contest with flying colours, not just on the territory of the Leadership fight but in making the news on other issues such as party funding.

Where Nick gives the sometimes endearing, sometimes vague impression of thinking out loud, Chris seems firmly to know his own mind. He’s put across a series of very clear messages, very effectively: a fairer society, a greener society, where power is handed back to the communities around Britain. He puts an emphasis on poverty and child poverty, on localism, saying that if you impose solutions you get “an amazing nation-wide balls-up,” and wants us to regain an anti-establishment “spikiness”. Then he argues that we must also establish ourselves as competent to run the economy (stepping outside our ‘comfort zone’, if you will), offering his real-world experience to take on Mr Brown. His answers show a mastery of detail, even if they sometimes go on a bit.

With all this, it’s tempting to say that Chris is “the finished article,” showing us his best while Nick’s potential has only been glimpsed. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, but I can’t be sure that Chris won’t get better, too; after all, though he made the running in last year’s Leadership contest too, since then he’s improved hugely (and consistently) as a speaker, and this year he’s muscled in on the media far more effectively. So who’s to say he’s not got more of his own learning curve to go before he reaches his peak? Wherever he is in terms of realising his own potential, where he is already is impressive: you know what his message is, even if you don’t agree with it; his “sharp elbows” make sure he gets that message across in places that wouldn’t automatically give him a hearing; and his performances have been consistently strong across the board. And he’s been able to withstand a host of negative attacks without crumbling. A new Leader will have to hit the ground running and make an impact. I’ve no doubt that Chris is capable of doing that.

He sounds like a very impressive candidate, and he is. But I do wonder if he can inspire the passion, loyalty and just plain liking that reaches the voters who don’t listen to the detail and sustains a Leader among the Party faithful when times get rough. The dilemma is that while Chris is more likely to be heard, when Nick is heard then Nick is more likely to be liked. What gives me pause for thought is that Chris’ greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: that he’s a hungry, ambitious bastard with a killer instinct for getting noticed at a higher cost than is strictly decent.

But Will He Be Liked?

So what does make Chris the candidate who’ll make us uncomfortable? It isn’t just that he’ll get heard on issues where we’ve not been comfortable fighting, but the way he does it. He’s made waves but sometimes giving the impression he doesn’t care how. Famously, he may have repudiated the ‘Calamity Clegg’ title, but he stuck to the attack lines inside the dossier with that on the front, having clearly been part of developing them in campaigning ‘wargaming’ though not publishing them under that particular name. There’s nothing wrong with putting your opponent under scrutiny, but three things made that the moment when Chris’ campaign hit its first rock. First, the crassness of the title, which came back to hit both of them even though Chris immediately repudiated it. Second, the accusations about Nick’s positions on public services were in several key ways more imagined than real – which implies a looser relationship with the truth than Liberal Democrats are happy with, though Nick’s weeks-long fumbling in settling the issue inspired no confidence either. And third, that when assertion turns into aggression and Chris just couldn’t resist putting the boot in when every onlooker was starting to get squeamish, people recoiled. Chris’ instinct for what the Party likes failed to inform him that we don’t like ‘nasty’, and that holing a fellow Liberal Democrat below the waterline does more harm than good.

Another drawback to Chris is his very attention to detail. It means there’s plenty to disagree with; it makes you wonder what he’ll be like if ‘crossed’ by the Party; and, ironically in view of his pursuing Nick on a lack of clarity, some of his positions mean something a little different to the soundbite when under close scrutiny. So, for example, I’m slightly wary that ‘freedom’ seems a little down in his priorities, and isn’t a word he usually chooses to talk about, or of opening up subjects for yet more debate that have already been gone into over and over, like Trident or local taxation. I’m slightly wary of the extent to which he might try and enforce his own views on the Party, or what will happen if our carefully considered policy process or a passionately argued Conference vote goes against him. And I’m wary of where some of his convictions lead, such as for example the line in his personal Manifesto that says “we must have the courage of our Liberal convictions” over drugs. This sounds like a liberalising instinct at play, but it turns out on close questioning that on drugs, and smoking, and on who knows what else, Chris’ instincts actually lean towards prohibition. Here, though Nick needed as much prodding to give a position and shows an endearingly obvious dislike of being prodded, Nick was both evidence-based and willing to follow that towards the Party’s existing much more Liberal policy, persistently ignored by the Leadership.

Will Chris be liked, then, to give him a cushion when times get rough? Is he willing to play a bit too foul? Are his instincts entirely to my taste? And, despite his ability to punch above our usual weight in the media, when all our enemies there decide to ‘get him’, will it derail his message that his constituency has such a small majority for him? While I’m certain he’ll keep his seat, there is the risk that his 500 majority ‘being at risk’ will become ‘the story’, which won’t stop Chris being re-elected but may stop people seeing us as winners elsewhere. Like ‘events’, sometimes inconvenient facts can clobber even the most media-savvy politician. On the other hand, of all the things that have come up so far in his media appearances during the campaign, that doesn’t seem to have been an issue…

Chris Vs Nick

Chris won Question Time, but by much more in the first half than the second. He was far better-able to deal with hostile questions, and it wasn’t that he flagged by the end; Chris was consistently good throughout, while Nick just rallied intermittently to hit higher but rarer peaks than Chris. And, yes, when Nick was good, he was very very good, but when he was bad, he was forgettable. Chris was impressive with his message, his detail and with his real-life experience – though his use of that terrible Ronald Reagan soundbite about age that, er, served Ming so well was his one serious howler (and though neither of them have ‘the Hung Parliament Question’ right yet, both are an improvement on Ming’s ‘La la la la la I have my fingers in my ears’ response). He’s developed considerably more passion and a sense of humour since last year. He can still look a bit stiff, though; it’s unfair to characterise him as a ‘machine politician’ to Nick’s ‘natural’, but there’s an element of truth in it, and for all Chris’ anti-establishment message, that’s not his manner. While Nick’s image seems often all over the place, Chris for better or worse comes across definitely as Chris, though as I’ve compared Nick to so many other politicians I will say that sometimes, when Chris is declaiming in a slightly pompous way, he does remind me of Paddy Ashdown in his bad moments, where Nick is reminiscent of what we used to love about Paddy instead.

The Politics Show, of course, was lost by both of them, but it was Chris’ badly calculated aggression that managed the mutually assured destruction. Chris was too aggressive and not fair to Nick, which was off-putting; though it exposed Nick as tetchy and unable to answer effectively, you got the feeling that the damage to Nick was rather like being caught in the blast radius of a hand grenade with which Chris had eagerly mortared his own foot. And that definitely damaged his campaign just as it was flying. Still, while that was the time Chris lost his cool, Nick seems to do it far more often but in a less disastrous way.

One after-effect of the Politics Show dust-up was that Chris lost the Newsnight debate a few days later, perhaps because he’d had had so much feedback of how badly he’d miscalculated and was uncharacteristically reticent, perhaps because Nick had raised his game. There was a more worrying element to Chris that night, though, and ironically in view of his main line of attack on Nick, this time it was a major policy issue on which Chris showed a lack of clarity and which could come back to haunt him. The issue was immigration, and while Nick said no, there hasn’t been too much immigration, but more attention needs to be given to the needs of communities whose resources are being overstretched, Chris refused to say whether there’d been too much immigration or not. In mid-waffle, he sounded terribly parochial, and even gave the impression he favoured protectionism. I suspect waffling around the subject of immigration and trying to appeal to both sides is morally superior to a naked play for the anti-immigrant vote, but Chris’ reply will have pleased neither side and wasn’t an edifying sight, though he did have the odd good point buried in there. Bizarrely, neither used the then-newsworthy argument of local councils that there should be more government support for areas where the census reports were screwy because of sudden increases in population.

But by last week and the Today Programme, Chris was back to walking all over Nick, in a thoroughly Liberal way, and doing it assertively rather than aggressively. He’s really very good at getting a word in.

At the London hustings I went to, Chris gave the best speech I’ve seen him give – polished, fluent, persuasive, funny. And yet Nick flew past him by miles. Chris can do passion, but Nick at his best is better for vision. Again, though, it was much closer on the questions, with Chris for me edging it by a smidgeon but both of them frankly bum-numbing in their wordiness. And he even declined the opportunity to put the boot in, being regretful and funny on Saj Karim rather than a hatchet man, so he’s learning. He was also very good throughout at remembering the names of the people he was replying to, which is a good psychological trick for making direct communication (and, Nick, really only needs a pen and paper!).

Odd thing about that hustings, by the way: the stickers. Last year we had one candidate with a reddish-orange, one using the safely prescribed Party Pantone, and the other with a yellowish-green, enabling undecided voters to display an exciting traffic light formation. This year, both colour tones were identical, so it was impossible to tell at a glance which candidate was which…

Vote For Chris

Both candidates are good Liberals (Nick’s instincts slightly more to my taste) and both are capable of communicating what we stand for (Chris slightly more effectively). If the ballot paper offered a vote for Nick as Leader to set out our vision alongside Chris as Deputy Leader with a roving brief to grab the agenda from our opponents and a licence to kill, I’d go for it like a shot. But there’s a crueller choice involved, and our Leader will have to shoulder both roles.

Chris has stood up to everything thrown at him in two Leadership contests without complaint, and has seized the agenda in both. We need that combination of toughness and the killer instinct. He’ll take us outside our comfort zone. Nick is capable of being a great Leader too, but his campaign has shown he’s not yet ready for it: with two Leaders destroyed, the party must be certain the next can stand up for himself. We can’t afford a feeble Leader reliant on a bigger ‘beast’ to ride shotgun for him – just look at how that approach turned out for John Major and Ken Clarke. Chris will be a Leader who will elbow his way onto the national stage and be ruthlessly effective. That’s why one of our votes goes to Chris Huhne.

And Finally… The Nasty Question

At the bloggers’ interviews with the Leadership candidates, on which I’ve been very slow to write, both candidates were very impressive, with both more charming, charismatic and animated than they’ve been on TV. Both were also more long-winded, with Nick just edging it for the one who went on the most (not that I’m one to complain). I’m also not one to complain about lateness, but you should know that Chris pounced on the opportunity to see bloggers and set a date that was within days of the first enquiry; Nick’s team needed a lot of prodding, eventually providing a date a fortnight later, in a typical example of his campaign’s ability to meet the 24-hour hour media cycle and set the agenda (though in Nick’s favour, he brought us teas and coffees, only one of which bore traces of strychnine). To test each of them – as I had with Ming before – I constructed a very leading narrative out of which I sprung a ‘nasty question’. With Chris, I asked the question at the time as a natural follow-up to James Graham’s on his ‘narrative’, and though the others have long since written up their own takes on his answer, here are my notes…

“Ming said he failed because he needed to be more popular. You say we need to revive our anti-establishment edge. Your ‘story’ is that you’re the rich guy, the journalist, the politician – all very popular professions – and of course the man from Brussels. If our Leader needs to be popular and anti-establishment, how is that you?”
Chris’ answer, given at the time and without a fortnight to ponder it, was along the lines that being anti-establishment is “a cast of mind” rather than personal circumstances – “rocking the boat, standing up for the underdog”. He gave as examples how as a journalist he had to ask the awkward questions, and how starting up and building a business is about fighting your way in. Slightly surprisingly, he lauded Microsoft as an example of an anti-establishment outfit coming out on top. He has “a fundamental belief that things should be changed” – politics as it is must be exposed as “the Emperor’s New Clothes”.

You can read my alternative “A Vote For Nick” here.

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Thank you for writing these two thorough pieces, which I have so far dipped into, but I will set aside some time and a fairly chunky marmite and cheese sandwich and cup of peppermint tea to read them both thoroughly. One thing intrigues me. With remarkable fairness you say "one of our votes" goes to each of the candidates. When you say this, are you referring to first and second preference votes (albeit that second preference votes are obsolete in this election) (i.e are you giving a first pref to one (undisclosed which one) and second pref to the other)?

And who does the "our" refer to? Is this the royal "our" (unlikely - I know you are not a keen royalist) or is it you and Richard? Or you and Richard and the Elephant?

Yours confused of Newbury

I wonder if the members who have already voted for Chris would have done so if they'd read about him putting pressure on a blogger yesterday to take down a link to an unflattering website!!

A tad confused too! But just to pick you up (in defence of Chris!) I don't know where this idea comes from that when you get to the age of 53 (which is 2 weeks away in my case) you somehow have lost all your maleability?! Heavens, if I thought that was the case I'd be off with my cocoa and slippers to a slow decline right now!!!!! Change is the only sign of life and anyone, leader or not, who is so set in their ways they cannot change should not be seeking office. Come to think of it, there are those as young as 20 in my experience who could be seen as totally unmaleable! I know you were not the first person to raise it, but please, can we remember it is about attitude not age. And whilst age allegedly has the advantage of experience it should also be remembered that people can have 50 years experience or 1 year experience 50 times............not that this applies in this case of course.

Great couple of posts though Alex, I do envy your attention to detail and ability to sum up the last few weeks so beautifully. Does that make you a "policy wonk"????!
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