Opinion: Now’s your chance, Nick

by Stephen Tall on December 19, 2007

Dear Nick,

I know you’re knackered, and that you’ve spent the last two months running yourself ragged in this leadership campaign. God knows why. Well, I guess there are 511 reasons why (though it’s mainly ‘cos the party exec reckons leadership campaigns should be run like by-elections, frantically keeping the party four-square in its comfort zone, appealing to its own electorate).

But, whatever the margin, you now have your mandate. You have been democratically elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. Now you must lead.

You must grab the agenda, and make it your own. As Vince Cable has, both with Northern Rock and with the official Saudi visit – and as Chris Huhne did with Labour’s donations-gate – you must elbow your way into the headlines. Thoughtful policy wonk speeches are all very well. But they are no substitute for getting a liberal agenda into the pages of the Daily Mail, or appearing on Strictly Come Dancing. You must do both.

If this leadership election has proved anything, it is that the party wants to be – and be seen as – more spiky, less consensual, more radical. ‘Safety first’ might have been enough to secure an internal leadership election; it isn’t good enough for national leadership of the party.

You must straddle the impossible divide: be taken seriously by the Westminster village media commentariat – whose verdicts of effective leadership are ridiculously informed by the infantile pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions – but not be absorbed by it. Recognise there is a world beyond Westminster – beyond London – where real people live and work, and show that you and the Lib Dem parliamentary party are a part of that world; not apart from it.

Ming Campbell promised to be the ‘pin-striped radical’, who would ‘rattle the cages’ of the party. His leadership failed to live up to its slogans. You, Nick, must live up to, but go beyond, those slogans.

The national party membership wants you to be different, edgy, radical: it is up to you to use your mandate to link the Lib Dems’ preternaturally anti-establishment credentials to the policies we would implement if we were in government. Easy? Of course not. Impossible? No. Vince has shown how. Speak with confidence, inspired by our liberal values, and the headlines of the media and trust of the voters will soon follow.

You have nothing to fear but fear itself: in your case, it (occasionally) manifests itself as waffle in interviews. Be disciplined: you may despise yourself for repeating yourself – but realise that a constant, truthful message rammed home is vital to establishing the party as a credible contender. We must be mainstream, but never boring. If ever one of your advisers recommends caution trust your own liberal instincts, not their PR-honed blandishments. Don’t be afraid to go it alone: yes, be grateful to those who got you where you are; but don’t be afraid to do what you know to be right, and sod the consequences.

You start from an ironic position of strength: your under-performance as a leadership candidate has served to tamper down the over-hype some of your more enthusiastic supporters wilfully indulged. A better campaign might have led to deferred disappointment; your disappointing campaign must now result in deferred joy.

The next decade as the leader of the only liberal, progressive party in British politics is yours; but you have only a short while to prove that you have what it takes. You must seize the agenda before it’s seized from you. That’s your challenge, that’s your opportunity. Please don’t let us down.

With all good wishes,


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I wonder where you got the idea of writing a post in the format of a letter.



by Letters From A Tory on December 19, 2007 at 10:17 am. Reply #

At Mr Letter Writer (any chance of a name, or a nickname or a psuedonym or something?). You’ve been blogging since September, writing posts in the form of letters is something that’s been around for as long as I’ve been reading blogs, I’ve done it, and I’m pretty sure Stephen’s done it before.

But, y’know, if you want to think you’ve actually created an original idea, that’s fine 😉

your under-performance as a leadership candidate has served to tamper down the over-hype some of your more enthusiastic supporters wilfully indulged. A better campaign might have led to deferred disappointment; your disappointing campaign must now result in deferred joy.

I agree with this, he ran a safe campaign because he knew he was ahead—it was too safe in many respects. Now he’s got to go out there and make some real noise.

by MatGB on December 19, 2007 at 11:01 am. Reply #

And I think Samuel Richardson got there about 260 years before either of us.

by Stephen Tall on December 19, 2007 at 11:05 am. Reply #

It reminded me more of “Desiderata” (“Go placidly amonsgt the toil and haste”) and was none the worse for that.

by Paul Walter on December 19, 2007 at 1:25 pm. Reply #

The more I think about this, the more I am pleased that it was a really close win.

If he had won by a huge margin, it may have led to some slight complacency. Whereas, I think that this will mean that he needs to go out there, work hard, and prove himself to those who didnt vote for him. This is no bad thing at all, and I am convinced he will do it.

by John on December 19, 2007 at 3:24 pm. Reply #

What your new leader can do for you, but what you can do for your new leader.

by Ask Not on December 19, 2007 at 5:49 pm. Reply #

The dog that didn’t bark.
I am amused at the flood of gratuitous advice being offered to Nick Clegg by party activists; that must be why our leaders have such a hard time, everyone thinks THEY know better how to do it than the person they have just elected to be LEADER.

Even a patronising letter from Stephen Tall before he has bothered to make polite reference to the “defeated” candidate.
This is all the more significant in a party that purports to believe in Fair Votes and PR, but in this case is happy to declare a whisker majority as a “mandate”.
Only some 250 people in 41,000 need have voted the other way for a different result. Apparently FPTP is OK in some circumstances.

And no bloggers have mentioned the 20,000 who didn’t vote, or asked why.
Judging from the You Gov survey, where Charles had the top vote of leadership candidates if neither of the above were standing, the answer lies in resentment at the manner in which the parliamentary party ditched Charles.
I think before we rush to extol our new leader and deluge him with our own plans, we should have a hard look at the election figures.

by Elizabeth Patterson on December 19, 2007 at 7:15 pm. Reply #


And no bloggers have mentioned the 20,000 who didn’t vote, or asked why.

Elizabeth, I’m one of the 20,000 who didn’t vote, and I’ve been talking to a bunch of others. There are many reasons for not voting, and a large number of them aren’t disillusionment before we even start down that road.

Nick is the new leader, democratically elected. Would I have preferred more candidates? Yes. Were they there? Not my choice.

In a two way race, it is FPTP, and Nick won by a whisker, that it was so close shows is a good thing: we had two very strong (and similar) candidates, and I for one, and I know a lot of others felt this, couldn’t decide and would’ve been happy with either candidate.

Chris running last time both made the race and got me to join the party, but both candidates are damn fine, and I’m sure Nick’ll be great.

As for ‘patronising’? Hardly, we’re a liberal party, our leader speaks on our behalf, he doesn’t tell us what to do or think. The purpose of this sort of site is to give opinions and discuss them, that’s what Stephen’s done.

We need to put the past behind us
Regardless of ‘blame’, and look forward. I want us to have 100+ MPs after the next general election, and the party has elected Nick to be the leader to do that for us. So regardless of who I’d have liked to see, Nick’s the guy now.

by MatGB on December 19, 2007 at 7:29 pm. Reply #

A good posting Stephen, just a couple of points:

“The national party membership wants you to be different, edgy, radical:”
I think that’s true, but is that what the Lib Dem MPs want from a Leader? Too many appear to have been infected by the Westminster Bug! Nick says he wants to get our more, so should the other 62.

“…fear itself: in your case, it (occasionally) manifests itself as waffle in interviews”. It did on Newsnight yesterday, Nick kept asking Paxman to’hang on a minute’ then waffling for another 3 or 4.

Its not enought just to tell evryone you’re the great communicator, you must show it.

by Steve Comer on December 20, 2007 at 1:41 am. Reply #

Yes – this “hang-on-a-minute” gambit needs to end. It seems to be part of every PR’s briefing notes these days and of course it’s Cameron’s favourite line.

by FH on December 20, 2007 at 1:59 am. Reply #

Sorry folks, he’s not the magic bullet; people who supported us, largely because they liked Charles, are still disillusioned and probably won’t vote at all at the next election.

by James on December 20, 2007 at 8:41 am. Reply #

“And no bloggers have mentioned the 20,000 who didn’t vote, or asked why.”


Start a blog.

Mention it.

Ask why.

Bloggers aren’t performing seals, we’re not told what to write about, we don’t abide by some hidden journalistic credo on what we should be writing about. If you think important things aren’t being said, you need to say them. And incidentally I don’t think you do a good point any favours by incorporating it into an attack on someone else for saying what *they* think.

Have you considered writing an LDV piece about this, if a blog is too bothersome?

by Alix on December 20, 2007 at 8:48 am. Reply #

James @ 11, he’s only had 48 hours! 😀 Give him a chance.

I quite like the “hang on” tag, but it’s just a matter of opinion I guess.

I think he’s going to get compared to Cameron whatever he does and doesn’t say – we don’t need to start getting paranoid about turns of phrase. We need to attack the whole ridiculous notion for what it is, not even entertain the comparison. Sorry to state the obvious, but Cameron’s a vapid, unprincipled joke trying ineffectively to breathe life into dead ideas. And, as a wise facebooker on his hate group pointed out, he looks like a thumb.

by Alix on December 20, 2007 at 8:54 am. Reply #

So “Cameron’s a vapid, unprincipled joke trying ineffectively to breathe life into dead ideas” is he?
Sounds like he’s got that much in common with Nick Clegg. If I hear that vague quote about ‘a child born in the poor part of Sheffield’ once more I’ll scream!
I remind you that Nick represents a seat in the rich part of Sheffield that was historically Tory pre-’97. Liberals did once come close in Hillsborough – but that was way back in 1983!
Clegg = Cameron mk2 I’m afraid.

by Tory Tim on December 20, 2007 at 10:25 am. Reply #

Oh come now. About the most impressive and comment-worthy thing he’s done in his entire tenure is give a prepared speech without notes. What a clever little boy!

However, I am aware that the terminally facile and short of brain will make the comparison, which is why I asked Clegg the other day what he had to say about it. I suggest you go to my blog to see what he said, because I really can’t put it better than he did.

by Alix on December 20, 2007 at 10:49 am. Reply #

…er umm…hang on a minute. 🙂

Look (another rhetorical flourish I don’t much like) — it’s not brain-shortedness which leads to comparisons with Cameron, who in his turn was compared with Blair. Of course, content trumps style for activists. But not for the media and, I would argue, not for most voters, though few would admit it. After all, Ming was first class on content. Under Clegg, we’ve an opportunity to present — market even – our content appealingly to the whole universe of future voters. Incidentally, some of them will have been attracted initially to Cameron (or Blair). I don’t think we want to call them terminally facile.

by FH on December 20, 2007 at 12:50 pm. Reply #

Bah! Bah, bah, bah!

No, all right, a perfectly good point.

I suppose what I am really saying, whilst inadvertantly slagging off the population, is that I think we need to be completely uncompromising – even intolerant – in rejecting the comparisons for the nonsense they are. The very fact that the Torygrph was able to say this morning that Clegg intends to challenge Cameron by “overhauling” Lib Dem policy is the ridiculous bit we’ve got to drive the wedge into. We don’t do policy on the way to work, Cameron does. The more we can make that clear, and the more publicly, the more difficult (to an order of magnitude) it will be for the media to peddle that line.

Having spouted off all that, Andy H at Wouldn’t it be scarier… has a far subtler take that is probably more of a winner:


by Alix on December 20, 2007 at 1:26 pm. Reply #

By the way, I completely agree with this:

Matters like sexual orientation are just a non-issue for his generation. That instinctive tolerance, that instinctive pluralism, is what he hopes to exemplify in himself as leader, and what he hopes will draw minority votes to us.

Exemplifying is MUCH better than stating. And successfully carrying it off relies heavily on the listener’s perception of authenticity. That’s where Cameron has been failing, with all his little rhetorical tricks (and, yes, INauthentic policies, to be sure). IMHO, our man is the genuine article. That fast instinctive and honest “no” on the Beeb yesterday (on the god question) was a superb example. And I suspect he’s being rewarded in most people’s perceptions. More of that and less “hang on a minute” will pay major dividends.

by FH on December 20, 2007 at 1:55 pm. Reply #

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