The Lib Dems' 'Smeargate' silence: well-judged or a missed opportunity?

by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2009

Like it or not, there’s no doubting that the political story of the past few days has been Damian McBride’s leaked emails touting various smear stories targeting Tories. Yet visit the Lib Dem website and you will find no mention; tune into the news, you will hear no comments from party spokespersons; read the papers you will find no quotes. The party has blanked the story.

I do not believe for a moment that this is an oversight – doubtless it was a deliberate decision by the Lib Dem leadership and the new director of communications Chris Fox to steer well clear of the story. Perhaps they reckoned any pro-active statements would be seen as rather desperate; after all, this story was never about the Lib Dems or any of our MPs.

Perhaps they reckoned that the story is so unpleasantly toxic it will pollute anyone who comes into contact with it, no matter what their view.

Perhaps they reckoned this story is only a sub-plot of Nick Clegg’s overarching ‘politics is broken’ meme – better to continue the focus, as Nick has today, on the issue of MPs’ expenses: a story we know really does matter to the public and on which Nick has something relevant and distinctive to say.

Or perhaps it’s a combination of all these reasons and more. I find each of them is persuasive in its own right. And whether you agree or not, there’s something for which I am grateful: on this issue at least the party seems to have thought through its media strategy.

No comments

The problem is that no-one heard what was said today on the reform of expenses.

There is no point saying things when no-one is listening.

by Simon on April 15, 2009 at 9:52 pm. Reply #

I agree. This was a web site which never existed. Let them the Tories/Labour on with it.

by Paul Walter on April 15, 2009 at 9:53 pm. Reply #

Try again: I agree. This was a web site which never existed. Let the Tories/Labour get on with it.

by Paul Walter on April 15, 2009 at 9:56 pm. Reply #

Mud sticks, and in my experience the fouler the mud, the stickier.

The question becomes heavyeight if it begins to become established that these emails were not a one-off, but a part of a pattern of slandering opponents. Then, there will be powerful words for Nick Clegg to say. Until then, better stick to questions that will still matter in a month’s time.

by David Heigham on April 15, 2009 at 10:11 pm. Reply #


As Simon said nobody was listerning because the media agenda has moved on. There *is* a much bigger story included in this; namely this goverment is dying before our very eyes….discipline is breaking down and it’s leaking all over the show…there are obviously people at the core of this government wanting to knife it any way they can…

Secondly, the story is that during an acute economic crisis this government has nothing better to do than consider tittle-tattle ways to smear the opposition….we should not let them ‘have at it’ and have the media agenda all to themselves…

by Darrell on April 15, 2009 at 10:30 pm. Reply #

Who says no-one’s listening? Nick’s MPs’ expenses article is in the paper edition of The Guardian. And it’s the most commented-on article on the Comment Is Free website.

by Stephen Tall on April 15, 2009 at 10:38 pm. Reply #

Something solution-led rather than emotional might make some headlines. Cameron and co. are maximising the ‘disgust’ angle, but something on SPADs and how they keep to their code of conduct would probably be newsworthy, substantial and timely.

by Simon R on April 15, 2009 at 10:50 pm. Reply #

“And it’s the most commented-on article on the Comment Is Free website.”

Eh? By what measurement? It’s got nowhere near the most.

by Alix Mortimer on April 15, 2009 at 10:57 pm. Reply #

When it comes to something like this I tend to follow Arthur C Clarke’s maxim “A captain can be wrong but never indecisive”.

Ie it’s the following days chip wrappers and really will only be remembered as part of the same narrative as MPs expenses

“on this issue at least the party seems to have thought through its media strategy.”

That only holds if this was a deliberate decision though. And we have no evidence on that front.

Nicks CiF article has 88 comments – it’s not even Nick’s most commented on article!

by Hywel on April 15, 2009 at 11:43 pm. Reply #

There were two things we could potentially have said, both were true, and neither would have helped us one jot. Which means that it was best not to say them.

1. Paul Staines, who was happy to smear Mark Oaten in the worst possible way, doesn’t have a leg to stand on in condemning other people who do it.

2. If David Cameron wants a personal apology from Gordon Brown because Brown is responsible for the actions of his underlings, then he’d better be prepared to make one of his own to the Watford Liberal Democrats.

And honestly, what would we have gained by Nick popping up and saying those things? Sweet FA.

by Andy on April 15, 2009 at 11:59 pm. Reply #

The Party has had its best weekends news coverage since before the Kennedy mutterings started in ernest in December 2005. Whether you agree with it, whether it turns out to be wrong what is clear is that a strategic decision was taken, communicated and then ruthlessly followed. Excepting Vince’s magisterial ascent ( which in my view has been a free lance operation ) the last two years have been a shambolic , often unedifying and increasingly desperate attempt to elbow neigh crow bar the party into any discussion going.

This hasn’t done the headline opinion poll ratings any good. It didn’t do Ming campbell any good. It hasn’t done Nick Cleggs personal rating any good. It hasn’t done the party’s membership figures any good. It hasn’t done a couple of other internal indicators I’ll be too diplomatic to mention any good either.

For Once “No news is good news”.

Some one somewhere has taken charge after 2 years narrative sea sickness on the Titanic. Others may carp. I say ” Thank You Baby Jesus.”

by David Morton on April 16, 2009 at 12:10 am. Reply #

Personally, I’m just glad we’ve kept out of it because it struck me as a bit of a non story. After all, in the middle of a recession, should this whole ludicrous polava really have dominated what are now four days of news cycle? I can’t help but think that a good many people will be starting to see this whole thing as a bit of a Westminster set-to over very little.

by Andy Hinton on April 16, 2009 at 12:27 am. Reply #


I really cant fathom why there are only those two things to say when they obviously arent. The whole point of this story is that the ‘broken politics’ actually puts in this situation where this government is just a walking disaster because it has been in power just plain for so long…..there is plenty more to say about this that tit-for-tatting….

by Darrell on April 16, 2009 at 12:36 am. Reply #

having defended the fact that there was *a* strategy let me defend *the*strategy.

The party got this one right.

While political obsessives might not have noticed supping at the crack nipple that is 24 hour news and the Blogosphere ( said he at 0036 ) last weekend was Easter. 90% of the British population will have fitted into one or more of 4 catergories.

1. Those enjoying the first bank Holiday break since Christmas with lots of people really hurting financially.

2. Those watching the sport

3. those who work in service industries who don’t get a break and for which easter is effectively the start of the summer season.

4. Those, wisper it, who in their mIllions went to Church because its a special time of year for them.

What enormous benefit would there have been to the party from burning signifigant political capital inserting its self into someone elses unseemly fist fight when frankly not many people were watching ? What was there to say ?

(a) its disgusting.

(b) its disgusting ergo Labour is disgusting.

And all in the 7 second clip we’d have got after a long queue of other people had said either (a) or (b).

At leasts this way the Press office can lean on outlets in time for monday hwen the school holidays are over and people go back to work and point out what a shameful media squeeze we’ve had and *coughs* reenter Nick into the national dialouge on the economy which is what people realy care about, stupid?

by David Morton on April 16, 2009 at 12:40 am. Reply #

Paul is wrong. The website does exist. It’s just that it never dynamically burst forth in the way planned.

by M on April 16, 2009 at 2:03 am. Reply #

Worth noting that all the politicians on Newsnight last night were Lib Dems (Nick Huhne on policing and Simon Hughes on Sri Lanka). Not a Tory in sight.

by A voice from Lothian on April 16, 2009 at 6:53 am. Reply #

Final comment on this from me. Even if the policy todate has been wrong its one that can instantly be righted. From the very breaking of this story there have been heavy hints that there is more to come. More emails, more questions. It will do no harm if that is true to have kept powder dry and be able to play the ” we have had no coverage” card with media bookers if/when the second stage breaks.

by David Morton on April 16, 2009 at 7:14 am. Reply #

“Eh? By what measurement? It’s got nowhere near the most.”

True, my mistake – it was the most-commented on of the paper edition’s op-eds, and the CiF left-hand column’s latest posts at time of looking. But there were and are other more commented-on pieces.

by Stephen Tall on April 16, 2009 at 7:51 am. Reply #

I am getting a lot of comments from political and non-political friends still on MPs expenses. Only a couple are interested in ‘smeargate’.

All this has done is confirm the worst about politicians, but it’s ‘politician on politician’ crime and so of little relevance to the population as a whole.

by Sara on April 16, 2009 at 9:55 am. Reply #

Apparently we are now commenting on the McBride affair, which makes our earlier silence somewhat puzzling:

by Bernard Salmon on April 16, 2009 at 11:06 am. Reply #

The danger is that the public are fast turning off from all politicians – what with Sleazegate and expenses. This may not necessarily benefit the Lib Dems, if we have nothing distinctive to say, apart from the obvious lukewarm voice of ‘reform’.

by Biodiesel on April 16, 2009 at 11:17 am. Reply #

For the Party to comment on this story would only put wind in Cameron’s sails and give credence to the utterly proposterous notion that the Conservative Party is whiter-than-white and would never ever sink to such depths.

Let Brown squirm, and let Cameron come over ever-so-insincere with his cloying mock outrage. Both sides are odious, so let them slug it out.

by Sesenco on April 16, 2009 at 11:35 am. Reply #

I agree that we were right not to touch this one. In recent days I have seen more and more protests of indignation from the Tories dragging the story out and cashing in as much political capital.

Even if we forget the fact that the Tories have engaged in similar smear campaigns (Watford), I feel the whole thing was becoming tasteless. The public must be sick of it. I am glad we have kept right out of it than have our party name associated with it in any way.

by Alan Beddow on April 16, 2009 at 5:18 pm. Reply #

@David Morton: “supping at the crack nipple that is 24 hour news”

😀 So “ew!” but so true.

by Alix on April 16, 2009 at 6:16 pm. Reply #

It felt like to me, with several days of Tory MPs demanding Brown apologize (when there’s no evidence he was involved at all), like they were all massive whiners. Like they really can’t get on with their job without Brown saying sorry? Yeah right. Pure political headline grabbing. It was a one day story, tops.

The problem was not the contents of the smear itself, but the fact that Draper and McBride were stupid to consider publishing it. This kind of gossip (usually with no factual basis) is common amongst all politicians (even the LDs), as it’s really nothing more than the normal office gossip you get in regular people’s lives, teasing and whatnot, with the adversarial part thrown in because it’s politics. It’s like a massive game of Chinese whispers, as rumours can wild and silly. When it’s just “office gossip” among the politicians and their staff, that’s fine for them to joke around, if silly behaviour. But when someone decides or thinks about putting it in the public eye, then that’s where the line is crossed in my book.

And Brown’s only said sorry today to shut the Tories up. I’m glad the Lib Dems stayed out of this facade.

by Alex Deam on April 17, 2009 at 12:06 am. Reply #

If the Lib Dem party has any McBrides on the party or parliamentary payroll it would be just as well to keep schtum unless to say “we’ve all got these characters, few as bad as McBride but we’ve got them” and “here’s one we hung out to dry earlier”.

And I think you do have such characters. As do the Tories. As do Labour. Although the Red Rag site wasn’t published McBride (and Draper) should have been given the heave-ho and the barge pole long ago. If there are further revelations these may well include later exchanges that don’t support the impression being managed that the thing was shelved almost instantly.

But the Tories have famous bin-diver, phone-tapper Andy Coulson at the heart of their dark arts team. Is his stuff going to be made accessible to FoI under Cameron’s new broom policy?

Even their antics over Ealing and Southall were nothing short of disgraceful, AND apparently orchestrated by Grant Shapps, a portfolio holder.

And there was that PPC fella in Watford. Do you know that Cameron took seven months to issue regrets over that? And it was almost in the same form of words as Brown’s initial attempt even after seven months. And that wasn’t thought crime, that was action including slashing tyres and painting graffiti.

Running a personal blog which sometimes attacks political opponents, and indeed every now and then Labourites, I try to stick with “discrediting”, and to stick with genuine players not non-combatants, and of course to stick to facts and evidenced facts at that.

There is a Lib Dem “McBride” up here in the North West I feel. And he has continued with full knowledge of the party and with little sanction.

by Chris Paul on April 17, 2009 at 10:49 am. Reply #

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