The last time we had a party conference in Bournemouth, in autumn 2009, one of my responsibilities was press work for our home affairs spokesperson Chris Huhne. Now, Chris is not a man to mince his words and he had a speech coming up that he intended to be about as absent of mince as a speech can be.
His target was William Hague, who had recently paved the way for the Conservatives to pull out of the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament – allying themselves with a host of far right cranks and whack-jobs instead. And not just cranks in the Dads Army-ish UKIP sense, but proper gay-hating, anti-semitic bastards.
Having read an early draft of Chris’s speech, I saw that it contained a reference to Hague as a “skinhead who has toured the beer cellars of central Europe and come up with the dregs” in the search for allies. This was, and could only be interpreted as, a Nazi comparison. I thought it might be a bit much.
The first person I attempted to make this argument to was James McGrory* – our home affairs adviser at the time (and later Nick Clegg’s spokesman in government). We spent several hours, several pints and several Marlboro Lights on the decking outside the bar at the Marriott hotel arguing the toss, despite the best efforts of Chris’s researcher Emma Coakley (who would go on to be a special adviser to Danny Alexander) to calm us down.
I argued that it would be described as a ‘Nazi slur’ and would probably end up on page two of The Sun with a mocked up picture of Hague as a far right skinhead. He agreed. He just didn’t think that was a problem. Two days later, that was exactly what The Sun printed. What’s more, Chris was eventually persuaded to lose the Nazi jibe from the final speech, but not until after it had already been briefed to a number of journalists.
It turned out that I had argued so enthusiastically with McGrory that when I woke up the following morning I had completely lost my voice. This was a bit of a problem for a press officer at a party conference, especially as that day Vince Cable would take it upon himself to announce a new policy, the much-heralded Mansion Tax, which came as a surprise to many people in the conference centre, not least party staff and most of the parliamentary party.
There followed a minor meltdown as MPs sounded off to journalists and staff failed to explain a policy that we had no idea was coming. As Chris Saunders**, our by now thoroughly frustrated economics adviser, sat at a desk in our makeshift press office furiously typing away at a briefing for the announcement several hours after the fact, David Laws*** came into the room and remarked “this is a bit like that TV programme – The Thick of It”. As tensions flared and hungover press officers and policy advisers flailed around trying to deal with the mess, I sat at my computer, unable to answer a phone, speak to a journalist or brief an MP.
It was a good day to lose my voice.
*McGrory is one of the most talented people I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Confident, committed, sharp, funny and brazen, and with an unwavering personal loyalty to Nick that would develop over the coming years. The only thing he was more committed to was Arsenal Football Club. He is also a bit of an enigma, a privately educated North London lad with the manner of an east end barrow boy.
**One of the smartest people I have ever met. This scene takes place either just before or just after (I can’t remember) he had conducted one of the most impressive and courageous press huddles of all time.
***Another one of the smartest people I have ever met. Put them in a room together and you have enough brain power to keep the lights on across Bournemouth for a year and a half.