The Liberal Democrats have a new leader, so it feels like a good day to kick off this blog and to do so with a story that features the man himself.
For days, Nick Clegg had been toing and froing over whether he could tell a joke about Andy Coulson. It was September 2010 and I was writing my first ever speech for him, which he would give at the opening rally event of the party’s autumn conference. Coulson was still Cameron’s comms chief but was getting an increasing level of grief over the phone hacking that took place while he was the editor of the News of the World. Nick had a whole riff in his speech about adjusting to life as a coalition partner to the Conservatives and I had written a bunch of gags, one of which went something like: “on the plus side, now that I work with Andy Coulson, I no longer have to check my own voicemails”*.
Nick loved the joke but was not sure if he should tell it. He insisted I keep it in every draft of the speech right up until his on stage rehearsal on the afternoon of the event, when he finally decided it was a bridge too far.
Also due to speak at the event was the late, great Charles Kennedy, who, on his day, was one of the most compelling speakers in British public life. Nick was to follow him and I was anxious that my speech wouldn’t measure up. However, as the day wore on, we started to get nervous that Charles wouldn’t show. In my time as a party press officer, the always-in-demand Charles had proved to be an unreliable booking, often having to be replaced at the last minute for shows like Question Time because he had dropped off the radar. He missed his rehearsal slot that afternoon and panic was starting to set in. Sian Norris-Copson, his good-humoured and long-suffering office manager, had tried repeatedly to get hold of him only for CK to reply by text message that he was ‘stuck on a train’. Nonetheless we held out hope that his train would arrive and he would appear in the Liverpool conference centre in the nick of time. With less than an hour to go before the event, which started at 6.30pm, we gave up the ghost. The only speaker any of us trusted to step in at the last minute and spontaneously deliver a Kennedy-esque rabble-rousing speech was rising star Tim Farron, the talented and ambitious MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and a brilliant speaker with that extremely rare gift in modern politics – comic timing.
Tim was tracked down to the conference bar – thankfully not wearing the vintage Blackburn Rovers shirt that he often dons of a conference evening – and was then convinced to take the gig and dragged to the windowless makeshift press office near the main auditorium. With just 15 minutes to go before the rally started, he sat at my PC bashing out a speech at breakneck speed. As he did, a bunch of advisers including Chris Saunders, James McGrory, Sean Kemp and myself stood over his shoulder suggesting lines he could use and jokes he could tell. It was at that point that Chris suggested he use the Coulson joke, which he duly included, right after a long-winded riff about coalition being like swimming in a lake, which culminated in a punch line about getting covered in ‘blue scum’.
In the end, Tim’s speech was all the more brilliant for its spontaneity, the hundreds of watching activists lapped up the Coulson joke and Nick’s speech went down a storm as well**. I, however, found the whole thing painfully awkward. I had been told that it was traditional for the speechwriter to sit in the front row next to Nick, which, in a rush of ego and vanity, I duly did. What I hadn’t thought through was that for the hour-long duration of the event, a TV camera and a phalanx of photographers were positioned just a few feet away from the DPM and myself, pointed directly at us. I have never been so aware of what my face was doing.
Charles Kennedy didn’t get to Liverpool until the following day. Having been included on the bill, I had to explain his absence to several journalists, a number of whom responded by asking me if I wanted to hit the bar with them later and ‘get stuck on a train’.
*Believe it or not, this was actually quite funny at the time. I know, I know. They were simpler times.
**For some reason, the Daily Mail chose not to report Farron’s Coulson joke, choosing instead to report on Nick’s other jokes without actually repeating any of them. Apologies to Danny Alexander, Sarah Teather and Eric Pickles.