Opinion: Not pretty, but does it matter?

by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2007

The Lib Dem leadership contest should be a fantastic opportunity for the party to display its wares, offering its most talented MPs the media spotlight to exhibit their vibrant view of liberalism, and how their leadership will elevate the party. At times – including last Thursday’s Question Time – that’s how it’s been. Today’s BBC1 Politics Show was a sad sight for anyone who wants our two would-be leaders to promenade the party in its Sunday best.

Neither candidate has an unblemished record. Nick Clegg, for example, penned an article for The Guardian in February 2006 in which he levelled charges of “headline grabbing”, “opportunism” and “U-turns” against Chris Huhne. Fair or not, it’s perhaps not surprising that this time around Team Huhne have chosen to retaliate.

But the already-infamous ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing, issued by Chris Huhne’s campaign team to the media, goes way further than Nick’s article. It resulted in a shambolic and unedifying spectacle out of which neither candidate emerged looking good – and, frankly, left me feeling grubby.

Chris Huhne, to my mind, went way too far in defending the ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing (though not its title). There are those who will say this is exactly the kind of leader we need: a man with cojones, left seemingly unruffled by Jon Sopel’s wholly legitimate ambush. For too long, we liberals have been too nicey-nice, and allowed the other parties to take advantage: a party leader with some gumption, unafraid to put some stick about, is well overdue.

It’s a fair point. But there are ways and means. I doubt many folk – whether party members or floating voters – could have watched today’s programme, and felt more positive about the Liberal Democrats afterwards. It is a good thing that Chris should display real hunger to win. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of the party’s reputation. Sharp elbows can be a positive attribute; but they shouldn’t be used on your fellow team-members (and certainly not with such seeming relish).

So, yes, Nick Clegg has some right to feel bruised tonight. But in another way he should be grateful. If (and I stress if) he wins the Lib Dem leadership then today’s debate will be by no means the toughest test he faces. He needs to work out how better to defend himself against the kind of onslaught he was on the receiving end of today; because it is just the kind of thing which will happen in the heat of an election campaign. And he needs to show himself to be tough enough to withstand it, without losing his cool, while successfully conveying a positive message. In both the televised hustings, he’s been too evidently discomforted by the unexpected.

Today was an opportunity to show the Lib Dems at our positive best. Surely, there have to be better ways to win than allowing us to be depicted at our negative worst?