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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.