Why the Lib Dems shouldn't enjoy Tory retoxification too much

Lib Dem ministers are in danger of looking like helpless passengers in a right-wing government.

Political strategists are obsessed with messages that "cut through". They mean the bits that somehow penetrate the consciousness of those people who don’t spend all their time thinking about politics, which is pretty much everyone.

Inconveniently, politicians are often surrounded by other politicians and journalists. They (we) are often as bad as each other at remembering an axiomatic truth about whatever it is they (we) have just said or written: most of the time, no-one cares.

So I do not mean to belittle the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference when I say that most of what passes as "news" – and what animates the chatter in the hotel bars of an evening – will skim off the surface of voters’ minds without leaving a mark.

I’d guess that two things have "cut through" in politics in the last week. First, that Nick Clegg is sorry. It might not be entirely clear what he is sorry for. We know he regrets making a pledge not to raise university tuition fees when he wasn’t remotely sure he could keep it. We know also that he stands by the policy on tuition fees currently in place. He is frustrated because the episode haunts his party, casting him as the emblematic face of broken promises and making it impossible to get any other messages heard. So, after much deliberation, Clegg decided to lob a contrition grenade – hardly a precise weapon, but sufficient, he hopes, to enable him to change the subject.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s aides insist his video apology is not meant to solve an image problem overnight (and plainly it hasn’t). The test of its effectiveness, they say, will only come towards the end of the parliament, when campaigning for a general election starts up. The hope is that, by then, it will seem tired and petty for Clegg’s rivals to attack him as the king of paltry pledges. He’s said he’s sorry – not a lot of politicians do that – what more do you want? It’s a pretty optimistic line, but probably fractionally better than the alternative, which was not apologising.

There are voters who will never forgive Clegg, whatever he says or does. They are lost to the party for the foreseeable future. As for the rest, given that one of the few things everyone knew about the Lib Dem leader is that he broke a promise, it is probably a small net positive that one of the other few things people now know is that he is also sorry. The details don’t matter so much. That’s cut through.

The second thing that has probably registered on most people’s political radars is that a senior Conservative member of the cabinet might or might not have called a police officer "a fucking pleb". Quite how toxic that is for the Cameron project hardly needs spelling out – it underlines the image of the Prime Minister as surrounded by a haughty, wealthy clique that is out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. Worse, it gives the impression that they despise public servants. Whether or not Andrew Mitchell actually said the words attributed to him – and he denies it – is hardly relevant. What counts is that it resonates as the sort of thing a millionaire, ex-banker Tory might be expected to say. Unfair, maybe. But that’s how cut through works.

The strong impression I get from speaking to senior Lib Dems here in Brighton is that they think Cameron ought to have jumped on the whole episode harder and faster. He should, they suggest, have seized it as an opportunity to trumpet his abhorrence at the attitudes attributed to his chief whip, declaring that there is no place for such language in a modern Conservative party. It is probably too late now. Whether Mitchell survives or not, the damage is done.

The Lib Dems aren’t too upset about that. It suits them to be seen as the reasonable, down-to-earth, humble face of the coalition as distinct from the moneyed arrogance of their partners. Predictably, Vince Cable exploited the opportunity to salt the Tory wound in precisely that way by proudly declaring himself to be a "pleb" in his conference speech. One senior Lib Dem, wearing a broad grin, yesterday described the whole Mitchell episode to me as  "dynamite!" A conference stall selling Lib Dem memorabilia sold out of badges announcing "I’m sorry" in the first days of the conference; "pleb" badges quickly replaced them as the must-have accessory.

But the relish with which Lib Dems are enjoying watching the Conservatives re-contaminate their brand does not sit entirely comfortably with the hope that Clegg’s apology will win the party a new audience.

In theory, it should be possible for the two episodes to cut through simultaneously in a way that helps the junior coalition partner. "Behold," the Lib Dems cry, "what we have to put up with! Yes, we made some mistakes, but aren't you glad we're here to rein these beastly Tories in. Imagine what they’d be like without us. The horror! We may not have won every battle - we handled that tuition fees thing all wrong - and yet we are winning some battles too." Then they hope their message of fairer taxes - making the wealthy carry more of the burden of austerity - will be heard and earn them some political credit.

But Tory toxicity is not specific to any policy. It is also contagious. It is a cultural apparatus that surrounds great tranches of the population, especially in the north and Scotland, as well as many younger voters and minority communities (as some glum Tories regretfully concede in private). It is a kind of political inoculation against putting a cross in a certain box come polling day. It is the force that stopped David Cameron from winning a majority. In that sense it is obvious that the Lib Dems should want to nurture the most vicious caricature of their governing allies – and hazardous.

There is ample evidence that the junior coalition party struggles to assert its identity in partnership with a much mightier political beast. Attempts at "differentiation" to overcome that problem have focused largely on policy. But individual policy rarely cuts through – especially when the question of credit and blame for good government in this parliament is largely dependent on the performance of the economy.

There is always the prospect that the Lib Dems are seen to be gathering up only crumbs of policy compensation in exchange for complicity in a largely Conservative project. And in that case, reveling in Tory toxicity is not risk-free.

While there is some disappointment in Brighton that Mitchell’s story has blown the conference out of the headlines, there are still a large number of people of in the party who see the  "pleb" episode as anything other than an open goal – and they’ll keep banging the ball in. It is hard to begrudge them that opportunity at their annual conference, since the occasion is all about celebrating the party’s distinctiveness and independence. But then the business of government must resume and the Tories will not have ignored the pleasure that was taken in their discomfort nor will they forget it. The task of managing coalition effectively, demonstrating that it can be a functional system of government, is as important a prize for the third party as differentiation from the Tories.

The lesson of the past two years is that, when the Conservative party feels wounded and insulted by the Lib Dems, it retaliates by demanding that Cameron ignore Clegg and crush his policy ambitions. The Prime Minister always acquiesces.

So the risk is that gleeful – and from the Tory point of view, gratuitous – punching of a bruised brand accelerates a process that ends up with the Lib Dems getting less out of coalition and looking more like helpless passengers. It is one thing for voters to know that Nick Clegg feels bad about handling one policy wrong. But if the two things they know are that he is sorry and that he doesn’t get his way, what cuts through is the sense that the Lib Dems are apologising for the basic fact of having propped up a Conservative government but not sorry enough to do anything about it.

Vince Cable joked that he was a "mere pleb" in his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit