Matthew Norman: "Nick should hand Vince his job." Here's why he's wrong…

by Stephen Tall on May 1, 2009

“The hour of his greatest triumph may seem an eccentric time to suggest this, but this is the perfect moment for Nick Clegg to hand Vince Cable his job,” says Indy columnist Matthew Norman. (Eccentric doesn’t cover it, Matthew, but let’s hear you out:)

It is through no fault of his own that his party is poised to squander a second successive breakthrough opportunity (the last drowned in the dregs of Charlie Kennedy’s Glenlivet after a woefully lacklustre campaign). A likable, intelligent and evidently sincere chap, and a gifted communicator, Mr Clegg can’t help looking like the centre picture in a five part morphing sequence from Tony Blair to David Cameron.

Back in that distant era when cloning Mr Blair was all the rage, his youthful good looks made him the obvious successor to the doddery Ming Campbell, and his reassuringly middle class blandness a vital defensive bulwark against Tory resurgence in the south east.

Thirty months on, in a drastically altered world, there can scarcely be a Lib Dem member unracked by grief that the Cable guy didn’t run. He declined to do so for the rationale, inarguable then, that replacing one grizzled sixtysomething baldie with another would be suicide. Who knew that his interim leadership, what with Stalin, Mr Bean and all, would prove such a startling success, and that he’d have walked it?

What we now know is that Vince Cable as leader would be a nuclear-powered magnet for disaffected and plain disgusted Labour voters sullenly shuffling towards a Conservative party whose appeal is built partly on what they are not, and partly on the pleasant inoffensiveness exemplified by Mr Clegg.

There are, it strikes me, two fallacies (at least) with Matthew’s argument.

First, he bases his assumption that the Lib Dems are about to squander their “second successive breakthrough opportunity” on the current position of the spread betting markets – these show the Lib Dems on course to gain 45-48 seats at the next general election, a potential loss of one-third of our current seats.

As Mark Pack has noted on LDV before, though, if you’d looked at those same spread betting markets in 2001 at the equivalent point in the electoral cycle they’d have significantly under-estimated the eventual Lib Dem electoral strength.

And as I noted in my poll round-up last month, the party is doing much better than it was in 2000, a year or so before the general election. It’s true, of course, that we’re down on our 2004 post-Iraq high. But my guess – and that’s all these things can ever be, as we can all point to statistics to back up our claims – is that those spread betting markets will tick upwards the closer we get to the general election both because the party (and Nick) will benefit from greater campaign exposure, and because of the traditional incumbency boost that Lib Dem MPs gain.

Secondly, on the ‘cult of Vince’… I bow to no-one in my admiration for our deputy leader and shadow chancellor: I was a fan of his long before his current vogue. But there is a fallacy in assuming that, had Vince stood for election, and had he won, the Lib Dems would be storming the polls just now.

For a start, the media would have given him a much tougher time as our leader than they have done as our shadow chancellor. That’s not to say Vince wouldn’t have been able to brush it aside – that he’d have avoided the occasional overblown gaffe (aka Nick’s widely misquoted ‘30 bedpost-notches’), or have steered the party through the Lisbon treaty vote without front-bench resignations – but he’s not so super-human that the media wouldn’t have identified a flaw and hammered away at it ceaselessly.

If Vince had won, the media would (probably) even now be writing pieces arguing that – eccentric as it might be to suggest it – Vince should hand over to that youthful, energetic, eloquent young man, Nick Clegg, if he wants to protect the Lib Dems’ electoral fortunes.

I firmly believe that a little bit of the media’s cult of Vince is because praising our deputy leader is a good way of slagging off our current leader. Even better, it’s a way for much of the media to demonstrate balance (‘what do you mean we don’t report the Lib Dems – we quote Vince all the time’) while simultaneously implying that the Lib Dems are a lost cause (‘we’d love to give you a chance – if only you’d chosen Vince’).

Ultimately, I think we can afford to be pretty relaxed about such speculation. Most importantly, Vince is a massive asset to the party – without his peerless economic performance it’s likely the Lib Dems would have been almost entirely squeezed out of the political debate for the past year. At the same time, Nick is self-evidently growing into his role –it’s possible that his leading role in the Ghurkas’ victory will turn the tide of media snide that’s been ranged against him since he was first elected.

As Vince himself commented in an interview with the Telegraph last week: “Our leader will become much better known in the election campaign, and we will be a double act.” Youth and experience really isn’t such a bad combination; and it’s a combination neither Nick nor Vince can pull off on their own.

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I think they should really go for the double-act at the election. It would be very powerful, particularly as I dont think either of the other leaders has a natural ‘running-mate’.

by John on May 1, 2009 at 10:12 am. Reply #

I don’t think people are stupid, if Clegg goes out making the most of Vince then there is the double gain. The idea that people are voting for a prime minister is a terrible one that holds little basis in the real world.

If the Lib Dem’s are to do well then they could do a lot worse than Clegg, and to demote him to promote someone who is ALREADY in the public eye and popular is just cutting your nose off to spite your face.

You have the chance of a unified party message being spread by not one but two potentially strong public figures for the party, it’s more than can be said for either of the other parties, and people will recognise a strong team for government when they see it.

by Lee Griffin on May 1, 2009 at 10:46 am. Reply #

The media’s lack of self-awareness on this Vince thing is beyond belief.

by Alix on May 1, 2009 at 10:47 am. Reply #

I agree with Lee on this – and if played correctly it can reinforce the ‘returning power to parliament’ theme – we are running as a team, not an individual – you are voting for ideas and principles in a manifesto, not on if you happen to like Dave. etc.

by Lennon on May 1, 2009 at 10:50 am. Reply #

“And as I noted in my poll round-up last month, the party is doing much better than it was in 2000, a year or so before the general election.”

I do wish we’d stop these absurd “we’re doing quite well compared with previous election cycle” comparisons. Circumstances have changed dramatically. At a time when a Labour government is in meltdown and we’re in the worst economic crisis for decades, we should NOT be content that we’re bumping along at, or a little bit below, where we were in previous Parliaments and maybe, if we’re lucky, pick up a seat or two here and there. We should be aiming to do a whole lot better than we are.

by Bernard Salmon on May 1, 2009 at 11:19 am. Reply #

The media treats our leader differently to the rest of our shadow cabinet. If Vince was leader, he wouldn’t be given the flexibility he has been able to take advantage of so well.

My concern over Vince is that less political people don’t realise he is speaking for us. Perhaps if we wore a giant yellow top hat adorned with the bird logo for all media interviews?

by Different Duncan on May 1, 2009 at 11:30 am. Reply #

This begs the question – Why are people not turning to the Lib Dems?

There is a great proportion of the people who just do not take you seriously. It’s different to the outright hatred for Tories or Labour, whatever the case may be. It’s more of a case of disregard with a condescending giggle. Why?

This is what the party has to change. The canonisation of Vince is a positive, but no effect on the polls. Why?

Perception is everything. Lib Dems are perceived as really nice people, but not government material.

by The Liberty Column on May 1, 2009 at 12:08 pm. Reply #

Different Duncan:

stop pinching my idea !!

Bernard Salmon:

er, yes we’d all like to be doing better than we are but have you got any suggestions?

Stephen:

I think the article is spot-on.

by crewegwyn on May 1, 2009 at 12:09 pm. Reply #

Crewegwyn: Obviously there aren’t any magic solutions to make us do better, but we can make a start by not appearing to accept our current mediocre position as being quite good, actually, with all things considered. It isn’t that good and we shouldn’t think of it as such.

by Bernard Salmon on May 1, 2009 at 12:14 pm. Reply #

Yes that was a silly article in the Indy. Vince has been so sharp on the recession precisely because he ISNT leader. Being in the finance role that he excels at has allowed him to be focused to an extent that he never would have been able if he was leader.

The whole point of a strong team is to have strong people in all the key roles.

by Mark Wright on May 1, 2009 at 12:20 pm. Reply #

I disagree with Alix – the media is completely self-aware, they’re just trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public because they’ve got their own agenda to push.

Articles like this one by Matthew Norman read more like a textbook propaganda exercise from ancient history than something with new insight to contribute – repeat something often enough and you can convince the masses it is true.

Or at least you can try. The problem is that the masses aren’t buying in the same numbers.

Due to the rise of alternative communication platforms, a combination of the transformation of newspapers into less-worthy lifestyle magazines and the exposure of the established media’s duplicitous, deceptive and cynical methods means they are more open to question by an increasing sophisticated consumer audience.

Frankly, it matter less who our leader is now because we are currently the third party.

For us at this moment in time what matters most is the balance of skills within our frontbench team and how they are applied, not the precise roles of each individual.

Being brutally honest, three, four or five years down the line as we head into the following general election with a Labour party tearing itself apart in opposition, we must be taken seriously as potentially the next government.

But by then Vince will be in his twilight years (though hopefully still twinkling), while Clegg will be firmly established with greater experience under his belt (no, not that kind) and a bigger public profile.

So Matthew Norman couldn’t be more wrong if he tried; Vince would make an admirable leader of the party, but Clegg could make an excellent leader of the country.

by Oranjepan on May 1, 2009 at 12:54 pm. Reply #

The two of them should be stapled together between now and the next election!

Also, we shouldn’t be complacent about ‘the traditional Lib Dem incumbancy advantage’. Incumbancy for any MP ain’t much of an advantage at the moment and the Tories have massively ramped up their local campaigning ability since 2005.

If we’re not careful that along with their massive poll leads could see us meltdown against the Tories particularly in the South. And if the unthinkable does happen we aren’t targeting enough Labour seats with enough resources to make up the difference.

by Letterman on May 1, 2009 at 12:57 pm. Reply #

LibertyColumn (whoever that is) asks

This begs the question – Why are people not turning to the Lib Dems?

Which seems to me to be based on a false premise. The premise that they’re not.

At the last elections where people got to actually vote, the Lib Dems beat Labour into 3rd place on national vote share. Sure, they didn’t do so well in London, but London is not the country, and it was only GLA/mayoralty elections there, completely different ball game to local elections.

In constituencies across the country where the Lib Dems have a chance and a campaign team, they’re doing well. That most national opinions polls don’t reflect this is a factor of the methods they use, which simply cannot sample based on geographic area in the way that would be needed to show the Lib Dems strength.

If I had any money at all I’d be buying heavily on those spread betting markets, palpably false numbers.

Stephen, I think there’s another crucial point you’ve not covered fully. By having Vince as deputy, the media are forced to give two senior Lib Dem figures coverage, as they can’t ignore Nick.

That means they can’t portray us as they frequently have in the past as a one man band. That we have, on occasions, played up that meme is possibly why, for example, we did less well in 2005 than we should have.

By having Vince and Nick, they can’t pretend we’re just the leader. Which means that Chris, Lynne and others also get good media coverage when they’re working an issue.

For the first time I can remember since the party was formed, we’re heading into a GE with a clear team of speakers, and the media isn’t painting us as “Charlie’s backup team” or “Paddy’s army”.

Then, of course, there’s the small but oft overlooked point that Vince genuinely doesn’t want the job.

by MatGB on May 1, 2009 at 1:28 pm. Reply #

@MatGB

That’s a nice lick of gloss you’ve slapped on there.

Speaking of false premises, we were really discussing the GE weren’t we?

When Lib Dems form HM loyal opposition with Labour in third (a dream result as far as I’m concerned), I’ll doff my cap to your comments. Until then I just can’t take you seriously.

Maybe you answered my question in a way that was not intended.

by The Liberty Column(AKA the equally pseodonomious Eyes Only) on May 1, 2009 at 2:33 pm. Reply #

As MatGB says (whatever does the GB stand for? surely not?) our shadow ministerial team are getting better and more respectful coverage than ever I can remember. It is partly down to their real strength in depth, partly to the lack of Tory strength in depth, and partly due to the Vince and Nick double act.

But, as Liberty Column (in New York harbour, it is a square plinth) says,

“Why are people not turning to the LibDems?”

That is the question. My guess is that to tip the scale, Nick has to show the passion and determination, Vince the competence, and the rest of our team a bit of both. My take is that Vince hit his stride first, but the others are now starting to hit their’s. On that basis, I have more hope for British politics than I have had for 50 years.

by David Heigham on May 1, 2009 at 3:49 pm. Reply #

Hello Mr Tall.

Just wanted to check that you got my email about the idea of being able to include a poll in an article

by Voter on May 1, 2009 at 4:38 pm. Reply #

There is a lot of wishful thinking going on here. The “logic” seems to be: “OK, granted Vince is a lot more popular than Nick, all that proves is that leaders are always given a harder time than deputies. Therefore, it is proven that if Vince were leader, Nick would become the more popular of the two.” Eh?

We should be doing FAR better than we are. The collapse of bankers’ capitalism cries out for a government that doesn’t worship bankers’ capitalism. That’s what the US have got, so why not Britain? Because Labour have made a pig’s ear of it. And because instead of offering the “real alternative” to two right-wing parties, as we rather successfully did in 2005, we are cosying up to blandly blue Mr Cameron.

One good week doesn’t alter the fact that we have failed to set the nation alight, and that’s down to Nick.

by David Allen on May 1, 2009 at 7:12 pm. Reply #

How exactly are we to accurately measure whether people are or are prepared to turn to the LibDems under Clegg until we have a election?

If you base your judgement on opinion polls then any conclusion is meaningless.

by Oranjepan on May 1, 2009 at 7:25 pm. Reply #

Sensible rebuttal to a very strange article. Calling for heads after a poor spell (or in this case, a good one) belongs in the back pages under the Premier League section.

Agreed too that we aren’t performing as well as we should be with Labour behaving as shamefully and disgracefully as they have been in recent months. 1 or 2 seats at the next election isn’t enough of a gain when the opportunity is huge.

Labour have done the liberal left a disservice with their heavy-handedness, spying and data collection. They’ve done the pro-europe wing a disservice by denying them their chance to win the argument clearly and fairly in a referendum, they’ve cheated the poor out of the 10p tax band. We could and shout capitalise on these errors. Similarly the Tories have no responses to the crunch, Osborne looks out of his depth compared to Vince. Anyone with an interest in green issues realises ‘Vote Blue Go Green’ is unappealing nonsense. Most Tories seem to agree with me too!

People don’t realise that voting lib dem would help them out financially. Tories naturally seem the choice for those who feel over-taxed. Yet we all know their tax plans wouldn’t help those who need it most.

I’m a new member so haven’t gone campaigning yet, but when I speak to people there’s the same old story about the Lib Dem ‘wasted vote’. I think the Gurkhas’ victory shows that we are anything but a wasted vote.

by Mike Shaw on May 1, 2009 at 10:27 pm. Reply #

Since we don’t really expect to win an outright majority at the next election, why don’t we acknowldege that what we want is more seats and the balance of power?

We are playing for junior partner in a coalition.

The electorate needs to be reminded that this is quite an acheivable target. We need one clear policy to offer and it should be “Vince for Chancellor”.

by Meher Oliaji on May 1, 2009 at 10:46 pm. Reply #

Oranjepan

Have the Lib Dems considered using focus groups to attempt to determine the number of MPs they might get at the next general election?

by Voter on May 2, 2009 at 11:13 am. Reply #

Mike.

It seems to me that the “wasted vote” objection is one that could have been
anticipated.

In the TV show Lost, Locke is asked whether he wants to be a hunter or
a farmer. Locke chose to be a hunter.

Why not hunt down the wasted vote objection and kill it?

If every time someone used that objection you could explain the precise
value of the LD vote in this constituency then you might have a chance
to kill it.

People like attention. If you show that you are attending to their
objections, they feel empowered.

The fact that this objection has not been killed suggests that one of three
things is true.

1. The Lib Dems are too small
2. The wasted vote objection has been given low priority
3. The objection is true and the Lib Dems are in denial

by Voter on May 2, 2009 at 12:38 pm. Reply #

SIMPLE LIB DEM MESSAGE: “THERE IS A CHOICE”

The reason for the Lib Dems’ failure to capitalise on the current situation is that voters are still fixated on a supposedly binary choice. So “I voted Labour but now I hate Labour” translates directly into: “therefore I vote Tory to punish them.” Probe deeper to ask them why, and they actually admit that they don’t really know what they are voting for, just that they are voting against Labour.

Lib Dems need to be communicating one very simple idea above all, persistently, as their key slogan, so it lodges in the minds of the electorate:”There is a choice”. They need to plaster it everywhere, distribute it on leaflets, put it through letterboxes. Anything to get it across.

by Robert C on May 2, 2009 at 7:48 pm. Reply #

Robert C

I could not agree more with what you say. I hope Chris Rennard also agrees.

by Stanley Theed on May 2, 2009 at 8:40 pm. Reply #

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