‘Call Clegg’: Nick survives first radio phone-in grilling

by Stephen Tall on January 10, 2013

Today was the day History Was Made. At least if you believe LBC Radio’s self-publicity. To be slightly more precise, Nick Clegg took part in the first of his weekly Call Clegg phone-ins on LBC Radio, putting his job on the line (geddit?!) for 30 minutes.

If you missed it, Andrew Sparrow live-blogged the six questions for The Guardian here. There were no shocks, surprises or gaffes. He’d most happily go for a drink with Ken Clarke out of any Tory; he defended the Coalition’s welfare reforms, fees policy, overseas aid budget; he argued (to an ex-Lib Dem who’s just torn up his membership card after 30 years) that the Lib Dems were making life fairer for the poorest through lifting the income tax threshold, introducing the pupil premium, and extending apprenticeships and free child-care; and he championed Britain remaining in Europe.

As he proved during the TV election debates in 2010, Nick’s best speaking style is a direct Q&A with the public. It’s not that he’s a bad public speaker, but he’s generally much better interacting more spontaneously. A lot of it is down to practise. I pointed out in 2010 that his Town Hall-style meetings had been the perfect training ground for the debates, and he’s continued them even as Deputy Prime Minister: 2012′s was even coined the ‘Bring on the Hatred’ tour.

The risk of the weekly phone-in is that it quickly becomes stale, that Nick will start to sound like a cracked record if week-in-week-out he uses the same arguments to defend the Lib Dems. The upside to that risk is bigger, I think, which is to ‘normalise’ Nick’s defences on controversial issues to the point where they become boring. In many ways it’s a repeat of Tony Blair’s “masoochism stategy”, as the BBC’s Chris Mason points out here. (West Wing devotees may remember Arnie Vinick’s stategy for defusing his backing of a nuclear power station where there was later a deadly explosion: taking every question at a live press conference, answering them all in full, until there wasn’t a single question left to be asked. Drawin’ the sting, running ‘em dry…) If Nick is harangued week-in-week-out over fees for the next two years i) he’ll work out the best, crispest way to defend the policy and the U-turn, and ii) it’s less likely still to be as explosive an issue come 2015.

Of course the downside could be that everyone just fixates on the one bit of trivia that the programme throws up — such as that Nick owns a green ‘onesie’ — and ignores all the rest. Still I can’t imagine the BBC or ITV or the broadsheets or the tabloids doing that, can you? Or even LibDemVoice…

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.