by Stephen Tall on November 30, 2008
The Sunday Mirror reports a conversation between Nick Clegg and his chief of staff Danny Alexander conducted on a flight to Scotland. One of the newspaper’s journalists was sitting in the seat in front of the party leader, who apparently discussed his plans to reshuffle the shadow cabinet.
The paper claims that these include demoting Chris Huhne from Home Affairs and moving Steve Webb from the Climate Change portfolio, with David Laws taking his place. Julia Goldsworthy would move to Education and Webb to Justice.
We have no way of judging the accuracy of the report, which claims Nick Clegg also shared some choice comments about some of the colleagues he was planning to move. We should add:
His private spokeswoman said: “We don’t comment on reports of fragments of private conversations. Nick has said before and genuinely believes that he leads the strongest front bench in Westminster.”
Key alleged quotes, according to the Mirror:
Of Chris Huhne:
Clegg dismissed him for the key Environment job by saying the shadow cabinet needed someone “more emotionally intelligent”. He then talked of demoting Huhne.
Of Steve Webb:
“Webb must go,” he said. “He’s a problem. I can’t stand the man. We need a new spokesman. We have to move him. We need someone with good ideas. At the moment, they just don’t add up.”
Of David Laws:
Clegg said: “Laws is not enjoying Education. The Tories have left him no space. But he’s got a forensic intelligence – he’s probably the best brain we have.”
“Give David a day [at Environment] and he’ll come up with more good ideas than Webb has come up with in a year.”
Of Julia Goldsworthy:
“We have to move her [from Communities and Local Government] too. She gets patronised. And we can’t give her Foreign. She’s just not equipped to do it.”
The degree of accuracy in the reported comments is to a large extent irrelevant. What matters is that (i) Nick and Danny have placed themselves and colleagues in an embarrassing situation entirely of their own making (‘careless talk costs lives’), and (ii) relations between the leader and some of the party’s most talented shadow cabinet members will be unnecessarily strained today as a result.
As Nick himself commented in the Telegraph yesterday, in a somewhat different context, “you increasingly have to rely on whistle-blowers to see the full picture…”.
UPDATE: Nick said on today’s Politics Show: “I, as every senior politician read articles claiming what I’ve done, said or think. Almost all of them are wildly inaccurate. A lot of the Mirror article is frankly fiction.”