Clegg dials up differentiation

Wounded over Europe, the Lib Dems are accelerating their strategy for looking and sounding unlike To

The Liberal Democrats are fighting back after a grim couple of weeks. Watching David Cameron pursue the most eurosceptic foreign policy for a generation and get an opinion poll bounce out of it was about as pleasurable an experience for Nick Clegg's party as seeing prospects for electoral reform killed off for a generation in May. That also coincided with a poll boost for the Tories.

The Lib Dems are seriously at risk of winding up in a situation where their defining policy positions are best remembered as the ones they were forced to abandon for the sake of coalition. Clegg knows his party's patience is wearing thin. The last few weeks have been "wounding", according to a senior aide.

The Lib Dem strategy has been to spend a period of time demonstrating that coalition could work - reassuring markets and voters alike that the two partners were committed for the long haul. Then, there would be a period of "differentiation", in which the junior partner sought to carve out some identity with distinctive policy positions, and finally "separation" ahead of a general election.

I'm told that the humiliation over Europe has been taken by Clegg as a licence to "dial up differentiation". It started with a semi-choreographed tantrum over David Cameron's veto of a new EU treaty. On Sunday, Vince Cable was on TV saying that the government would be implementing in full recommendations made by the Vickers Commission on banking regulation (in fact this is a coalition compromise position, but the fact that the Lib Dem Business Secretary got to announce it first counts as a mini-concession). And today Nick Clegg is making a speech in which he derides a cherished policy of the Tory right - the idea of promoting marriage with tax concessions. He also distances himself from Cameron's "Big Society" vision, preferring a liberal "Open Society" variant. There is even going to be a renewed Lib Dem push for House of Lords reform.

After the AV fiasco, Clegg's team had decided to tone down the party's enthusiasm for constitutional reform on the grounds that no-one cared apart from a tiny handful of reformist fanatics and they were the people most likely to be dismayed by Lib Dem compromises and defeat.

The fact that Clegg has gone back to the constitution is revealing in two ways. First, it is one of a few areas where there is some natural coincidence of interest with the Labour party. Lords reform is a test ground for future possible collaboration - feelers have already tentatively been put out. Second, driving through Lords reform would provide an answer to a crucial question for the Lib Dems when they are feeling marginalised by coalition: "What have the Tories been forced to do that they might not have done anyway?"

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