Clegg can’t walk on water

The Lib Dem leader could perform miracles and still not get a fair hearing from the press. He should

There used to be a joke about Neil Kinnock when he was leader of the Labour Party. He couldn't get decent headlines. Everything he did was reported as a blunder. His advisers thought long and hard about how to turn it around. In the end, they concluded he would have to walk on water. Kinnock obliged and walked from one side of the Thames to the other. The next day the Sun headline screamed: "Kinnock fails to swim river".

When it comes to coverage of Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems need to stop waiting for a miracle.

I had a chat last week with someone at editoral level at the Daily Mail. I asked a simple question: isn't it the case that, whatever the Lib Dems do, whether you agree with them or not, you are likely to praise the Tories for the policy, but not Nick Clegg? I was assured that my assumption was entirely accurate.

So when the newly acquired Daily Mail political journalist Iain Martin writes in a tweet yesterday that: "This morning's press coverage is probably not what Nick Clegg had in mind when he launched his 'social mobility strategy' . . ." we have to understand the context in which it is written. Clegg could walk on water right now and the Daily Mail would see it as a failure or a blunder.

Let me make a prediction. Over the next two years, journalists will prop each other up and say, "Ooo err, aren't the headlines bad for Nick Clegg." They will say it as if they are somehow surprised. They will say it as if it is somehow not predetermined, which it mostly is. Only a few, like Julian Glover yesterday, will be the exception that proves the rule.

So what should Clegg and his team do about it? First, as I have said previously, the policies are everything. We need to see achievements, not be told what is in the pipeline. Clegg needs to draw up a strong communications strategy for the long term, but keep it small-scale and tactical at the moment. Don't over-obsess about the press – especially the printed press. Above all, Clegg should use something that Neil Kinnock didn't have: social media and an ever-growing army of tweeters and bloggers. Reach beyond the Mail, Telegraph, Guardian. As ever, if there are limited resources, focus on broadcast.

For Lib Dem members, expect nothing from most of the print media, but call them up when they are wrong. Another political journalist said to me last week how amazed he was that the Lib Dem membership was holding up so well under the pressure. Further evidence that Lib Dems are made of stern stuff and have long-standing experience of making coalitions work in local government, and in Scotland and Wales.

The kind of party leader I cannot bear is the one who can do the PR spin, who looks all glossy to the journalists, but when you challenge them on their policy convictions and ambitions they fall short. Nick Clegg is not that kind of leader. If you want a "public relations bunny" don't look to him. If you want favourable headlines don't look at the papers. If you are a Lib Dem and manage to walk on water don't expect any miracles.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.