Clegg and Cameron’s stage-managed ruckus

Nick Clegg and David Cameron are keen to play up their differences. But are there really cracks in t

The Prime Minister and his deputy both gave interviews to national newspapers this weekend. It was obviously David Cameron's turn to be Good Cop in the Daily Telegraph. He duly took the softly-softly approach, discussing watching DVDs with his wife in bed and putting together Ikea cupboards. Nick Clegg, however, was Bad Cop in the Independent. A very bad cop, indeed.

After a rather-too-revealing interview in the New Statesman this month, Clegg has attempted a self-reinvention, turning himself from a simpering punchbag and teary-eyed audiophile to a hardened political street fighter, swinging at anyone who gets in his way.

"I'm a human being – not a punchbag," he whimpered to Jemima Khan in the New Statesman, while also admitting that he cries to music. Now, though, he's not a human being, he's an animal, tearing strips off anyone who looks at him funny or gets in his way. John Reid? "Reactionary and backward-looking." The Tories? "A right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are."

Clegg even massacres the English language to prove what a tough nut he is. "I am probably harder line than anybody . . . about making sure that Liberal Democrats don't get rolled over."

And it has worked. The Lib Dems haven't been rolled over – in his head, at least. "If you were a political expert from Mars and you didn't take your cue from the Daily Mail, you would conclude that this is, objectively speaking, a quintessentially Liberal government."

But hang on, the coalition is fundamentally Tory, says Cameron in his interview:

People who voted Conservative can look at this government and say, of course it's a coalition, I didn't get everything I wanted, but I got reform of the welfare system. I got a cap on immigration. I got the abolition of Labour's jobs tax; a massive expansion of academy schools. I think Conservative supporters have every reason to think, "Of course this government hasn't solved all the problems of the country, but they're on my side."

As the local elections near, both leaders are desperate to paint their party's principles as the guiding narrative of the coalition – and emphasise that neither of them really likes coalition government. In this regard, they sound remarkably similar, for men so eager to emphasise their differences.

Clegg describes the coalition as an "unsentimental . . . transaction", sounding awfully like a husband justifying his visits to a call girl. Clegg doesn't want a relationship with his bit on the side – Cameron means nothing to me, Miriam! "I see all this stuff about how we are somehow mates. We are not. We are not there to become friends," he says. "I didn't come into this coalition government to look for friends." Tennis partners, perhaps – but not friends.

Cameron, meanwhile, gets the point across through a loud conversation with a Conservative councillor in Southampton, in earshot of the Daily Telegraph's Allison Pearson.

"Can we get a few right-wing Lib Dems over to us?" asked Cameron. "Coalition's working well. Quietly deprive the Lib Dems of their seats?

"Don't write that down," the Prime Minister says to me jokingly.

He might as well have thrown her a cheeky wink. With local elections and the AV referendum just two weeks away, it is no wonder that Clegg and Cameron are preaching to their respective choirs in the Independent and Daily Telegraph.

The interviews, however, are electioneering, plain and simple. Any talk about "cracks" in the coalition on the back of them is misplaced. It's a stage-managaged ruck to please the punters and nothing more.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories