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12 April 2011

Advice to a deputy prime minister

Five steps to help Nick Clegg rescue his political career.

By David Mills

1. Hire some new advisers

You are now one or two bad interviews away from becoming an utter laughing stock. You need a journalist or two in your inner circle to do a better job of telling you which interview bids to reject (more of them), and to do a better job of training you to handle the ones you accept.

For the time being at least, you have the carrot of a fairly handsome special adviser’s salary to dangle in front of potential targets – there’s bound to be at least one Lib Dem-inclined hack who’ll take you up on the offer. It’s no coincidence that Ed Miliband started getting better reviews once he employed Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts.

2. Apologise

Your new adviser should prepare you to hold a press conference at which you say you’re sorry for the student funding fiasco, that you accept that students and others who took that seriously have a right to be angry with you, and that you got that wrong. Also apologise for not being distinctive enough in government and promise to do better from now on. Forget parroting your achievements; no one is listening right now. By saying sorry, you’d win a lot of respect from ordinary voters, who don’t expect that kind of normal behaviour from politicians.

3. Stop the NHS reforms

As part of your press conference, say you’ll tell David Cameron that your party will vote against the NHS reforms. They weren’t in the Tory manifesto, and despite your ill-judged comments to Andrew Marr, they weren’t in yours either. They are political death, and you’d be doing Cameron and Tory MPs in general a favour by stopping them, not to mention the electorate and your own party. Are you going to let David Cameron take the credit for the U-turn, when it comes, or are you going to seize the initiative and do it yourself?

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There’s no way Cameron will walk out of the coalition over it, triggering an election on “Who do you trust to run the NHS?”, because the electorate would answer: “Not you, sunshine,” faster than you can say, “Labour majority of 80.” Which is what the result of such an election would probably be.

4. Move seats

At the next PMQs, don’t sit next to David Cameron. A small change, but one that would immediately signal the distance between the two parties. Sure, David Cameron and Craig Oliver might be irritated, but really, who cares?

Ignore them and sit where you like, ideally on the bench occupied by Simon Hughes and other Lib Dem senior statesmen. If you ask them nicely, I’m sure they’ll shift along for you.

5. Cheer up

The British people hate a moaner, and the grief you’re getting is nothing compared to the abuse that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown went through. Onerous though the duties of a deputy prime minister undoubtedly are, you don’t have to take the decisions about sending troops into battle that a prime minister has to deal with. Moreover, no one knows what the politics of the next four years will throw up, who you’ll be up against, or even what electoral system will be in place. Something might turn up – but you’ll only be able to benefit from “events” if you stop acting like David Cameron’s deputy and remember that you’re the leader of a party that needs to win back voters who, right now, are set on voting Labour.

David Mills is a former special adviser at the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.