The Holt Surge: A by-election story

It is with great sadness that I have to report that today is the last day at Lib Dem HQ for James Holt, the party’s Director of Communications. Jammy and I have been brothers-in-arms for a long time. We started out as press officers together in opposition before the 2010 election. I was then his deputy when he was Head of Media for much of the coalition years, a job I succeeded him at when he was appointed as a special adviser in 10 Downing Street in 2013, which was another job I succeeded him at when he returned to HQ in 2014 to help get the party machine ready for the general election.

He’s a brilliant comms professional, a relentlessly upbeat personality and someone I am very privileged to call my mate. By way of tribute, here’s the brief story of my favourite Holty moment. It is set, as all the best Lib Dem stories are, not in HQ or No 10 but on the campaign trail. In this case, it was the 2013 Eastleigh by-election which was very much a make or break campaign for the party.

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Jammy, in the middle, clearly not sure how to answer our old press office mucker Donald Campbell’s question.

Here’s the problem. You are inside a building on a trading estate in Hampshire with the Deputy Prime Minister and somewhere in the region of 100-150 Liberal Democrat activists, where said Deputy Prime Minister has just delivered a rousing speech to said activists on the eve of a make-or-break parliamentary by-election. Outside the building is the car that the Deputy Prime Minister will be leaving in.

Between the car and the building are around two dozen reporters, snappers and TV cameras, all of whom are desperate for a slice of the Deputy Prime Minister, not to talk about said by-election or said speech, but about a scandal that is dominating the news in an otherwise quiet week about allegations of sexual harassment made against the party’s former chief executive.

What do you do?

That’s when James Holt had a lightbulb moment. The entrance to the building was an enormous roll-up, corrugated metal affair, like a huge garage door or the sort of thing you would use to protect a massive off license after hours. The press pack were all expecting the DPM to come out through the smaller front door, built into the roll-up wall, into an open car park, where they could pounce on him like jaguars on a gazelle. So, Holty arranged dozens of activists, some gripping placards and bright orange diamonds, inside the building facing the entrance, like infantry preparing to march into battle.

Behind the advanced guard was Nick Clegg flanked by dozens more activists and, rather conspicuously, a couple of the Metropolitan Police’s finest close protection officers.

On the count of three, the roll up wall was flung upwards and out charged the activists, Nick among them, cheering and chanting the campaign’s slogan ‘I like Mike’ (our candidate was Mike Thornton) over and over again as they pushed through the befuddled journalists and out towards the car at the other end of the car park.

Nick was safely escorted, through a crowd of cheering activists, to his car, and whisked away back to London. No reporter got close to him. As the crowd dispersed, a few bamboozled journalists were left standing in an increasingly empty car park wondering what on Earth had just happened and what they were supposed to tell their newsdesks.

The novel manoeuvre was quickly christened the ‘Holt Surge’ and is now a firm part of Liberal Democrat by-election folklore.

Good luck, Chief.

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For what it’s worth, we beat them. As did UKIP.

Danny Alexander and the SpongeBob SquarePants lunchbox

To mark this year’s budget, I wrote the inside story of Danny Alexander and his yellow budget box for the Times Red Box. They have graciously allowed me to reproduce it here, paywall-free.

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“Whose idea was this,” began the email from an actual Member of Parliament to the Lib Dem press office, “Danny with a children’s lunch box?”
It was the day after last year’s budget and the image in question – which the MP had spotted on Twitter – was of Danny Alexander holding a SpongeBob SquarePants lunchbox aloft on the steps of the Treasury.
It wasn’t meant to be this way.
Throughout the coalition years it was borderline impossible to get any meaningful coverage, and therefore credit, for the Lib Dem bits of budgets. In coalition, the budget was no longer the Chancellor’s one man show, it was a negotiation between what was known as the ‘Quad’ – Cameron, Osborne, Alexander and Clegg. So each time round it became a long, drawn out process. Ideas were floated and thwarted. Deals were cut. Compromises were reached. It was in this way that the Lib Dems delivered, step-by-step, the raising of the tax free allowance to £11,000 – which every year Osborne would then take the glory for at the Dispatch Box.
We tried staging budget day photo ops on the banks of the Thames declaring ourselves the authors of the tax cut. We rushed spokespeople out to broadcast cameras to repeat the message ad infinitum. We bent the ears of every journalist we could find and clogged up their inboxes and Twitter feeds. One time we even rented a bi-plane to trail a message about Lib Dem tax cuts across the sky.
And every time, we would be lucky if we got so much as a single mention on the evening news bulletins or in the next day’s papers. In 2013, we had a photo op involving a massive orange banner disrupted by an angry heckler – and he got more coverage than we did.
By 2015, we had pretty much given up on getting any coverage on the day itself, so Danny had a new idea. He had negotiated with Osborne that, for the first time ever, the Office for Budget Responsibility would publish forecasts based on the different economic plans of the two coalition parties. This would, for the first time, allow a Liberal Democrat to stand at the Dispatch Box and set out what our economic policy would mean for the country in the years to come. This would take place the day after the Budget, meaning that Osborne kept his big day and we now had our own ‘Danny Day’.
To add a bit more colour for the nation’s newsdesks, we planned that when Danny was finished in the chamber he would head outside and unveil an election poster. The image was to be borne on the side of a poster van, covered in a tarpaulin that Danny would remove with a flourish in front of the cameras. Except it never showed up.
The big reveal was due to take place near Parliament at midday, but by 10.30am Tim Hobden, our Head of Press, was getting nervous that he had not yet heard from the van driver, Bernie. So Tim called Bernie to check on his progress and was told not to worry, he was putting the poster on the van now.
“Where are you?” Tim asked with an air of trepidation.
“Oxford,” came Bernie’s reply.
“Oxford Circus?”
“No, Oxford. I’ll be leaving in a minute.”
It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that getting from Oxford to central London in an hour and a half in the middle of the working day is a hell of a push. There followed expletives, Googling, frantic speed and distance calculations and phone calls in which said van driver was asked what his ‘top speed’ was. Eventually, we accepted that he wasn’t going to make it. It was the latest in a long line of disappointments for the Lib Dem press office.
We needed a Plan B – another photo op to add a bit of colour to Danny’s big announcement. That was when one of Danny’s team had an idea. A few days earlier at the party’s spring conference, Danny gave a speech in which he talked up what a Liberal Democrat-only budget would look like, which was aided by a prop: a budget box that had been painted yellow in the back garden of a party adviser’s house.
Bear in mind, this was the run up to the General Election. The message was ‘this is what a Liberal Democrat Chancellor of the Exchequer would do’ (in short: cut less than the Tories, borrow less than Labour and invest massively in national infrastructure). So how do you visualise the idea of a Lib Dem Chancellor? Why not recreate that iconic budget day image of the Chancellor holding aloft his red box, but make it yellow instead? It was a bit cheesy but went over well within the confines of a Lib Dem conference hall.

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Now, the idea was to bring the yellow box out of retirement (it had actually been auctioned off to raise campaign funds) so that Danny could pose with it on the steps of the Treasury. It was hastily recovered and Danny duly held it aloft with pride for the assorted snappers, camera crews and sketchwriters. The pics quickly found their way to Twitter, where they were swiftly photoshopped into images of Danny posing with, among other things, a Golf Sale sign, a Playstation, the Yellow Pages, a Meccano box and, yes, a SpongeBob SquarePants lunch box. A meme was born.

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You might think that, after all that, we’d give up on Bernie and the poster van. We didn’t. Not only was he asked to drive the van to London and leave it on standby, covered by a tarpaulin, in a car park in Paddington, but a couple of weeks later we used him for another poster launch, this time in an empty, rain-soaked car park near Stockport, witnessed only by a few journalists and a handful of Labour activists with bright red posters.

News about Nick Clegg’s book

Available in all good book shops next year.

Available in all good book shops next year.

For the last few months I have had the privilege of helping Nick Clegg to prepare his upcoming book (hence the sporadic nature of these blogs), which has been formally announced by the publisher today. Politics: The Art of the Possible in an Age of Unreason will be published next year on The Bodley Head, an arm of Penguin Random House. Their press release making the announcement is below.

Nick has been clear from the start that he didn’t want to write a long-winded political memoir or a salacious kiss and tell. This is a serious book that uses his experience at the top and bottom of British politics, and his time in government in particular, to grapple with a big question: why has politics become so volatile and unpredictable? From Cleggmania and Corbynmania to the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the unlikely has become the commonplace. From the SNP and UKIP at home to Syriza and Podemos abroad, populism and the politics of identity is on the rise. In Politics, Nick explores why that is and what the future holds, especially for those who believe in the politics of evidence, reason and compromise.

NICK CLEGG TO WRITE BOOK ABOUT THE STATE OF POLITICS

FOR PUBLICATION IN 2016

Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is writing a book entitled Politics: The Art of the Possible in an Age of Unreason for publication by The Bodley Head next year. Will Hammond (editorial director) acquired UK and Commonwealth rights on behalf of the imprint from Georgina Capel.

In Politics Nick Clegg examines the fluid and unpredictable state of politics, which has seen old certainties disappear, outsider figures become mainstream, and nationalism, populism and identity politics rise up at home and abroad. More so than any other political figure, Nick Clegg has seen the volatile state of modern politics up close and personally, from his spectacular rise to national prominence at the 2010 General Election to his tumultuous experience in Government and defeat in 2015. In Politics he will draw on stories and lessons from his time as Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition government of 2010 – 2015, and offer a glimpse behind the curtains at how power in Britain really works.

Nick Clegg described the book as a reflection on ‘how the politics of reason, evidence and compromise can survive at a time when grievance and unreasoned populism are on the march at home and abroad’ as well as ‘an examination of the state of British politics, told through candid stories and observations from my time at the top and the bottom of the political ladder’.

Will Hammond said: ‘Nick Clegg is uniquely well placed to describe the inner workings of Downing Street and Westminster while maintaining a dispassionate distance from our current government and opposition. More than an illuminating insider’s account, though, the book will use those experiences to explain why politics has changed so dramatically in recent years, what has been lost in the process and what might be done to address this lack. This book will be a must-read for anyone interested in British politics but will also speak to those who feel alienated by the political landscape today. There is every reason to believe that there are many of them.’

Note to Editors

ABOUT THE BODLEY HEAD

The Bodley Head publishes influential and engaging works of non-fiction by some of the leading writers and thinkers of our time, addressing a huge range of subjects: smart thinking, science, reportage, history, maths, biography, music, natural history, current affairs and economics. Its authors include Lisa Randall and Misha Glenny, Simon Schama and Karen Armstrong, Wade Davis, Roger Penrose and Timothy Snyder.

Founded originally as an antiquarian bookseller in 1887, The Bodley Head went on to publish George Bernard Shaw, Graham Greene (who was a director), Muriel Spark, William Trevor and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In 1969 Bodley Head joined forces with Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus, who today remain sister imprints within the Vintage division. Recently, writers as diverse as Ai Weiwei, Yanis Varoufakis, Jill Abramson, Stephen Witt, Ian Mortimer, Robert Caro, Edith Hall, Lewis Dartnell and Cédric Villani have joined the list – united by their originality, by their expertise and by their gifts as communicators.

ABOUT VINTAGE

VINTAGE is one of the UK’s leading literary publishers. Part of Penguin Random House, the largest publishing company in the world, VINTAGE specialises in discovering leading thinkers and writers from around the globe. The publisher comprises of the following imprints: Jonathan Cape, The Bodley Head, Harvill Secker, Chatto & Windus, Hogarth, Yellow Jersey, Square Peg, Vintage and Vintage Classics.

Authors published by VINTAGE are the current holders of the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Household names on the list include Simon Schama, Nigella Lawson, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison.

Landing a washing machine on a comet: The story of a party leader’s speech

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In my head this is what the Rosetta mission looked like.

Today is Tim Farron’s first party conference speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats. As I had the privilege of helping Nick Clegg with his final party conference leader’s speech, it seems like a good day to tell you about it.

It started on Wednesday 12 November 2014, when mankind did something incredible. For two decades, a group of scientists and engineers from the European Space Agency had been quietly attempting something audacious. They were planning and executing the Rosetta mission: the voyage of a tiny unmanned space probe that would wind its way through our solar system in the hope of landing on, and sending back data from, a comet that was travelling at more than 100,000 kilometres per hour.

Imagine what all that must have involved. First, someone spotted the comet, billions of miles away, and had the crazy idea of trying to send something to it so that we could all learn more about the make-up of our solar system. Then, they and their colleagues must have convinced a whole bunch of very serious, straight-faced people in suits, across a host of European countries, that this mission would be worth the megabucks it would inevitably cost. Then, they spent years designing a probe and other gizmos and plotting routes through space to get it there. Then, they had to launch it. Then, they had to wait and wait and wait as it wound its way through space. Then, it had to orbit a rock hurtling through space and land on the bloody thing. In the autumn of 2014, they did it. Amazing.

I watched the final part of this saga unfold on the BBC News Channel from my office in 10 Downing Street. I was transfixed. I really had a lot of other things to be doing, but they all fell by the wayside. I spent the next few days with a spring in my step, boring anyone and everyone about what a remarkable thing had just happened.

I churned out dozens of speeches, articles, quotes and scripts for video clips in the first months of 2015, but I was always aware that there was one centre-piece speech that I needed to prepare for: Nick’s speech to the party’s spring conference in March, which would probably be the biggest and most important speech that I would write for him. So I fretted over it. I wrote an argument and a structure – and first discussed it with Nick the best part of two months before he would deliver it. I wrote a first draft and went through it with him. I scrapped huge amounts and wrote a second draft, which I then scrapped entirely just seconds before I was due to send it to him. It just wasn’t right.

Nick was clear that he wanted to use the conference speech, first and foremost, to set out an optimistic vision for what Britain could become and then to contrast the inherent optimism of liberals with the rising tide of fearmongering and nationalism. Yet I couldn’t quite articulate it in those first drafts.

Then I thought back to the Rosetta mission and knew immediately how I would set up the speech. I was on the 341 bus at the time, so I started tapping some thoughts into my phone that would become the basis of a new opening section.

The story of the last five years has been a story of rescue at a time of emergency. A story of doing what was necessary in exceptional circumstances. A story of stopping the worst from happening. And we did it. We, the Liberal Democrats, this plucky band of dedicated and passionate campaigners, we did it. So what next?

Last autumn, like much of the last few years, the news was dominated by dark and grisly stories. The threat of war was mounting in Eastern Europe. Atrocities were being committed by terrorists in the Middle East. A legacy of the most horrific abuse was being exposed right here in the United Kingdom, in institutions we thought we could trust. And then there was one day in November when a different kind of story dominated the news.

A small group of scientists and engineers from a host of countries across Europe had spent years tracking a comet the size of a city as it hurtled through space from the edge of the solar system. And on that day in November, as that piece of rock was half a billion kilometres away, travelling faster than a bullet through the vacuum of space, they, we, humanity, landed an object the size of a washing machine on its surface. Of course, because nothing goes 100% to plan, it bounced off and flew back into space, and for a few nervous hours we waited. And then it sent us back a signal. There it was, sat on the surface on an alien rock it had no business being on, further away from where it started than the mind can conceive.

The BBC were filming in the mission control room as the news came through. As the room erupted in cheers and applause, the camera focused on Professor Monica Grady, a scientist from Milton Keynes, who had dedicated nearly two decades of her life to this incredible project. She grabbed the BBC reporter in an ecstatic embrace as tears of joy streamed down her face.

What an amazing thing to have achieved. What an incredible, audacious, optimistic thing to have even dreamt of attempting. What an inspiring moment for thousands of young girls and boys to witness. What a beautiful, hopeful thing it says about us.

If the last five years were about necessity, I want the next five to be about possibility. If the exam question that faced the last government was: how can you rescue the economy? The question that faces us now is: what next? What sort of Britain will we become?

Britain is an open-hearted, open-minded, optimistic country. She is full of decent, hard-working, loyal people. She buzzes with creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism. There is nowhere in the world like this country. Nowhere as plucky. Nowhere as hopeful. Nowhere as welcoming. We are a small island but we are a big, big country. The legacy of the financial crisis, the aftershocks of that brush with catastrophe, they’ve shaken us. But we take our hits on the chin. When we get knocked down, we get up, brush ourselves off and carry on. In tough times, it is natural to fear the worst. But now it is time to dream of the best.

I was quite pleased with that. And, luckily, so was Nick. I was also particularly pleased because it allowed me to continue entertaining myself with my personal in joke, which was that I would attempt to crowbar as many references to my home town of Milton Keynes into Nick’s speeches as I possibly could. Not an easy job given neither of the parliamentary seats in the #cityofdreams were targets for us. He totally called me out on it, but he loved the Professor Grady story so much that he went with it anyway.

From that point on, the speech effectively wrote itself. It would start with this story of hope amid the gloom, and then segue into a section where Nick would set out the sort of Britain that he wanted us to become in 2020 and how he proposed we get there, linking the big picture vision with the policies that we would pursue to deliver it. Then he would set out the twin threats to that vision, from both economic instability and the rise of populism and nationalism. He would then argue that the only way to counter that and protect that optimistic vision was through liberalism, giving the party its central purpose in the years ahead, before finishing on an upbeat note advising the party to ignore its critics and prove the pollsters wrong. Pre-election conference speech in a nutshell.

It was always good manners and good practice to contact any individuals that a party leader would be citing in a speech in advance, not least to be assured that they weren’t die hard Labour activists who would be straight on Channel Four News to say it was a disgrace. So I had to track down Professor Grady. I got in touch with my school friend Andrew McDermott, who works at the Open University where Professor Grady was based, and he very helpfully dug out some contact details for her. In the first instance I dropped her an email, explaining who I was and that Nick was considering referring to her in a speech. She responded that she was delighted, not least as she was a card-carrying Liberal Democrat. What are the chances of that?

Here’s the full thing.

It shouldn’t happen to a press officer at a party conference, part two: A Nazi slur, a botched announcement & a good day to lose my voice

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.

William Hague, as mocked up by The Sun. Bald, but not a Nazi.

William Hague. Bald, but not a Nazi.

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.

It shouldn’t happen to a press officer at a party conference, part one: Lee-man Brothers

Lib Dem party conferences are often overshadowed by events elsewhere. When we came together in Sheffield in spring 2011, for example, the Fukushima nuclear disaster took place. Jeremy Browne, who was the foreign office minister covering south east Asia at the time, ended up getting more airtime than the entire party conference did.

At my first conference as a press officer, in Bournemouth in 2008, we also had to compete with some pretty big news happening in the real world. One of my tasks one morning was to get up at the crack of dawn and meet Vince Cable in the hotel lobby in order to brief him on the content of the day’s papers and the news that had broken overnight, before walking him to the makeshift studio of the Today Programme.

Vince Cable's unimpressed face. Worn that morning.

Vince Cable’s unimpressed face. Worn that morning.

The thing is, something actually quite significant had happened overnight and by the time I found Vince I hadn’t quite grasped how serious it was. I met Vince in the hotel lobby, newspaper clippings in hand, and stood with him for a few minutes trying to explain.

“So, Vince,” I started, “there is one story that is starting to get a bit of pick up this morning. There’s this American bank called something like Lee-man Brothers, or Lay-man Brothers, I’m not really sure. Anyway, it’s collapsed apparently. I’m not really sure how serious it is but it seems to be getting some of the broadcasters excited.” There followed a pause. I have no doubt whatsoever that Vince Cable thought I must be some kind of idiot, but to his credit he had the good grace not to let on.

“It’s ok,” he said in his gentle, understated manner. “I know a bit about this.”

As it turns out, the collapse of Lehman Brothers was a pretty stonkingly massive story. I had no idea. Vince was fine on Today though.

News.

News.

Enter the Outsider

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The night of the first televised leaders debate – Thursday 15 April 2010 – was a night that changed my life forever. I was one of a small number of party press officers sent to the ‘spin room’ at Manchester’s Hilton hotel to speak to accompany one of our ‘big hitters’ – in this case Paddy Ashdown, Chris Huhne and David Laws – as they made the case to reporters and broadcasters that our man had won and the others had bombed.

The debate took place in the Granada TV studios in Manchester. A few hundred yards up the road was the Hilton, where the spin room was set up in a grand, high-ceilinged ballroom. At one end was a cinema-style screen that would broadcast the event live. In front of it were banks and banks of desks where print journalists bashed away at laptops, and at the rear of the room, on raised scaffolding, were the broadcast points, where the BBC, ITV and Sky positioned their cameras for live reaction and post-debate analysis.

We rocked up about an hour and a half before the start of the show, mingled with the gathering reporters and munched away on crap sandwiches and coronation chicken wraps. My main job for the evening was to accompany Chris Huhne around the room, making sure he spoke to the right people at the right time.

As the room got progressively more crowded and I got the rare opportunity to see some of the big beasts of British politics rubbing shoulders with each other. William Hague, David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Theresa May – all milling around chatting in the same room. At one point George Osborne, who is taller than you think, rushed past me down the aisle in the middle of the desks in an odd manner I would later see much more of – head first, like a sprinter reaching for the finish line. It is one of the biggest regrets of my political career that, as he brushed past me, I had to the opportunity to raise my leg and send him sprawling across the room, carried by his own headstrong momentum. It would have even looked like an accident. I have to live with the knowledge that I had that chance and wasted it for the rest of my life.

Shortly before the debate started we retreated to our private green room off the adjacent corridor, one of three rooms side by side that spinners from each party had been assigned to. In each one there were a dozen or so plastic chairs pointed at a large flat screen TV, with a printer and a phone line that would connect us directly to the ITV producers in case we wanted to take issue with anything during the debate. We wouldn’t need it.

After drawing lots earlier in the week, we knew Nick would make his opening statement first. With our hearts racing, ITV’s dramatic theme music started and Alistair Stewart introduced the debate as ‘history in the making’. And then the camera focused on Nick.

I believe the way things are is not the way things have to be. You’re going to be told tonight by these two that the only choice you can make is between two old parties who’ve been running things for years. I’m here to persuade you that there is an alternative.

I think we have a fantastic opportunity to do things differently for once. If we do things differently, we can create the fair society, the fair country we all want: a fair tax system; better schools; an economy no longer held hostage by greedy bankers; decent, open politics. Those are the changes I believe in. I really wouldn’t be standing here tonight if I didn’t think they were all possible. 

So don’t let anyone tell you that the only choice is old politics. We can do something new; we can do something different this time. That’s what I’m about; that’s what the Liberal Democrats offer.

With that, Nick raced away. He was fresh, authoritative, straight-talking. Cameron came across like he was trying to flog you a knackered Vauxhall Corsa. Brown came across like a knackered Vauxhall Corsa. And when the moment came, as Brown and Cameron squabbled, Nick came out with the killer line, the one that would be clipped and repeated hundreds of times during the campaign: “the more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.”

We were watching all this unfold in our green room. We all thought it was going well but it was absolutely impossible to get any sense of perspective. Every now and again, the Tories in the room next door, audible through the thin partition wall, would erupt in theatrical cheers when they thought their man had landed a blow. We watched in near silence. A few minutes in, Paddy decided he needed to be in the spin room, so that his reaction to Nick could be seen by the journalists. In he went, to cheer and grin in exaggerated fashion when Nick spoke and frown and shake his head when the others did.

Eventually, as the debate reached its end, Jonny Oates, who was then our director of comms, gathered us together to agree our lines. Nick was the clear winner. He had proven that this is not a two-horse race etc etc. So we re-entered the spin room with newspaper journalists furiously typing away their reports just seconds away from first edition deadlines. As Chris and I moved round the room, it was incredible. We didn’t need to spin. Everyone, pretty much unanimously, agreed that Nick had won.

And then two things happened. Firstly, the instant polls came in. Both YouGov and ComRes had Nick trouncing the other two. The former made it Clegg 51%, Cameron 29% and Brown 19%. The latter made it Clegg 42%, Cameron 26% and Brown 20%.

Secondly, as Chris was chatting away congenially with BBC Radio Five Live’s man mountain John Pienaar, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a number of journalists in the distance dashing off to the left. I turned and saw that the Dark Lord himself, Peter Mandelson, had wafted into the room. A crowd of reporters half a dozen deep was forming around him, with cameras pointed at him and hacks elbowing each other, notepads in hand. I dashed over too. Then I heard his first words: “Nick Clegg won…” Astonishing.*

After a few minutes, our job done for us, we made our way back to the green room to collect our things. As a few of us press officers were milling around in there, scooping up phone chargers and packing away laptops, Paddy came back in and, in suitably dramatic Paddy fashion, used his serious voice to give us a stern warning.

“They’ll come for us now,” he said. “The Tories. Their friends in the press. They’ll come for us and it won’t be pretty. We need to be ready for it.”

As my colleague Louise Phillips and I stumbled back to our hotel (the press office budget didn’t tend to stretch to Hiltons), drunk on nothing more than the strange sensation of success, I was chain smoking my nervous energy away and she was busy trying to download newspaper front pages on her Blackberry. I craned my head over her shoulder as the Times splash slowly loaded up. The headline was ENTER THE OUTSIDER beneath a huge photograph of Nick entering the studio, gazing upwards beatifically with Cameron and Brown in the background. I dropped my fag.

It was followed by the Telegraph: CLEGG’S STAR RISES IN GREAT TV SHOWDOWN.

The Guardian: CLEGG SEIZES HIS MOMENT.

And the Independent: CLEGG COMES OF AGE.

I am not ashamed to say that I had a few drinks that night.

*To be fair to Mandy, the full sentence was “Nick Clegg won on style but Gordon Brown won on substance”, but when the arch spinner of the New Labour era has to concede in his opening sentence that your man had won, even at some level, you knew something strange was happening.

The Siege of Cowley Street

Wednesday 10 November 2010. 13.57. The day of the infamous tuition fees protest.

An email pings into my inbox from my former press office colleague, Donald Campbell:

Going by the News Channel, the students are going a bit Lord of the Flies. Hope you’ve got some coppers out front – or are they burning their placards because they’ve changed their minds, having seen Nick at PMQs?

 Simon Waddington, Lib Dem HQ’s head of operations, replies:

The situation has got so bad we’ve lowered the blinds.

The protest brought tens of thousands of angry students – propped up by hundreds of angry union members and anarchists who were clearly not actual students – to Westminster. They started at the top of Whitehall by Trafalgar Square, marching westwards towards Parliament chanting ‘Clegg, Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue’. When they reached the Cabinet Office, a few of them stopped to burn the boss in effigy, lifting their flaming Cleggs high above their heads to the cheers of the great unwashed. They continued to march westwards, past the Houses of Parliament, past the broadcasters ensconced in 4 Millbank, past – mystifyingly – the turning on to Great Peter Street that would have led them, in fewer than 100 paces, to the front door of 4 Cowley Street, the party’s  five-storey rabbit warren HQ, sat in a quiet, terraced cul-de-sac, and the windows of our ground floor press office. Instead they continued to march down the banks of the Thames to Millbank Tower, home to Conservative Headquarters, where they proceeded to smash windows, set things on fire, infiltrate the building, climb up on to the roof and lob fire extinguishers from it. All of which we watched on the rolling news channels on the wall-mounted TVs in the press office with a mixture of fascination and terror.

Going into government was a hell of an adjustment for Cowley Street staffers like me who joined a party that had been out of office for 70 years with no expectation that we would be bucking that trend now. Becoming full-blown hate figures, savaged in newspapers, mocked on late night comedy panel  shows and, now, raged against by the angry mob, felt like an out of body experience. We were supposed to be the nice guys.

We didn’t really know what to do. We didn’t have any police protection. We sat nervously in our office with the blinds down. Our private security amounted to the mild-mannered Simon Waddington, not one of life’s intimidating physical presences, and our camp but strong-willed Irish receptionist Robert. If the hordes had discovered us, which, given they all had smart phones and our address was anything but a secret, I’m amazed that they didn’t, we’d have been over-run. They could have barged their way through the front door, smashed the windows, nicked the computers, trashed the offices and occupied the building and there’s not a damn thing we could have done about it. Instead they went to the Tory HQ, further away, in a tower block, and started trashing stuff that didn’t even belong to the Conservatives.

At around midday, I was peckish. We’d been holed up in the office all day. There were no protestors outside. So, I thought ‘sod it, I’m getting lunch’. I slipped out into the sunshine and found my way to the Tesco a couple of hundred yards further up Great Peter Street. I queued for my meal deal behind half a dozen teenagers who had clearly come down for the protest but found themselves a little peckish. They were very civilised and clearly having an extremely pleasant day out. One of them was buying sushi. Another had a placard that read ‘Down with this sort of thing’*.

I mooched back towards the office and paused at the corner of Great Peter Street and Cowley Street to finish my cigarette. It appeared that we had been found. An advanced guard of half a dozen protestors, twenty-something men and women, some with dreadlocks, were trying to force their way into the building. They had got through the heavy wooden front door and were stuck in the small antechamber between it and reception. Half in and half out of the front door was a bicycle with attached trailer, on which was a past-its-best sound system blasting out some mild trip-hoppy drum and bass music. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I joined them in the foyer, wearing my grey suit and carrying my plastic Tesco bag. “Excuse me,” I said politely as I Englished my way past them to the double doors that were being held firmly in place by Simon. The protestors weren’t actually doing anything. They weren’t trying to barge the door or anything. They were just hanging around in our foyer, a bit stoned, listening to drum and bass. Simon opened the door for me and I squeezed through. He shut it firmly and continued to eye the protestors with a mixture of suspicion and amusement through the window in the door.

A few frantic calls to the Home Office later and the police did in fact turn up. They cordoned off the cul-de-sac and kept guard throughout the remainder of the afternoon. Eventually, when they were done trashing Millbank Tower, a few hundred protestors did locate Cowley Street on their way back to the tube station, so we had a relatively small and entirely polite protest outside for a few hours until it got dark and the temperature dropped, at which point everyone went home.

*I didn’t realise at the time that this was actually a Father Ted reference.

father_ted_down_with_this_sort_of_t

UPDATE

My good friend Louise Phillips has just reminded me that the fine men and women of the parliamentary press lobby were particularly considerate on this day. Many of them tweeted their puzzlement as to why the students hadn’t trashed Cowley Street, while also helpfully including the full address. Subtle guys. Subtle.

Welcome to Coalition, Comrade

He was wearing a tweed jacket and crisp beige chinos. I was wearing a faded blue polo shirt, baggy jeans and fraying Adidas trainers. We eyed each other up silently.

Oh God, I thought. An actual Tory.

Oh God, I assumed he thought back. A bloody Lib Dem.

Welcome to Coalition, comrade.

His name was Nick, and he, like me, was a pasty 20-something HQ staffer summoned to Downing Street in the early summer of 2010, just weeks after the formation of the coalition. It was a Friday during summer recess, which explained the casual clothes, and we were still in that heady, hubristic honeymoon phase – that wide-eyed window before the giddy wave of Cleggmania and the buzz of ‘new politics’ subsided and was replaced by the grinding reality of cuts, spats and unpopularity. Up until that point, working with the Conservatives had been an abstract notion for me – something I understood that we were now doing but not something I had been asked to dirty my hands with. The pair of us had been called in to No 10 to help plan a joint press conference with Sayeeda Warsi and Chris Huhne to expose some of the more gruesome details of ‘Labour’s Legacy’ that we had discovered since coming into office*.

It was my first time in the Big House. It’s a strange place, intimate and intimidating at the same time, like a National Trust manor that people live and work in. Having nervously shuffled through the famous black door and handed over my mobile to the custodian, I was sat in a small waiting room just to the left of the main foyer. Then this guy Nick arrived, we said an awkward hello, avoided eye contact and waited silently for something else to happen. At some point it clearly dawned on both of us that we were here for the same meeting, which had been organised by two newly minted No 10 special advisers, a Tory called Oliver Dowden (who is now an MP) and a Lib Dem, my old boss Sean Kemp (who is not). It didn’t make it less awkward.

It’s not like Nick was the first Conservative I had met. As a local reporter, some Tories had become my best contacts. Many of them even seemed like they were nice people. But that was local politics, where for every community-spirited public servant you come across there is a mad-eyed busy body or a miniature Mussolini. My assumption was that ‘proper Tories’, the type you’d find in places like Downing Street, were an altogether more objectionable sort. Then there was chucklin’ Charlie Elphicke, the eventually successful parliamentary candidate who I got to know when he rocked up on my patch in Dover in 2007. He seemed harmless enough and was good company, if a little ‘Hooray Henry’ in demeanour – the sort of guy who laughs through his nose at his own jokes. Later, I would bump in to him from time to time in Westminster and, once he’d clocked that I worked for Nick Clegg, he would start having these semi-conspiratorial conversations where he would tell me ‘something you guys really ought to know’. They never did make it back to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Anyway, in my own head I was able to discount all these examples of Toriness and maintain my prejudice that real Tories ate babies. I mean, look at George Osborne.

So there we were, Nick and I, two hoodlums from different sides of the tracks, standing in our civvies waiting to be escorted to a meeting in what turned out to be Margaret Thatcher’s old office, on the first floor, overlooking the Rose Garden. Inside were Oliver, Sean and three more Tory staffers (as ever, we were outnumbered). We all sat there, at an over-sized wooden table under a disconcerting oil painting of Maggie with eyes that followed you around the room.

Ladies and gentlemen, we were through the looking glass.

Thatcher's office, complete with creepy painting and my (not creepy) fiancee Thais.

Thatcher’s office, a few years later, complete with creepy painting and my (not creepy) fiancee Thais.

I can’t recall a great deal about the meeting itself, but the thing that stayed with me from that day was discovering the moon rocks. Maggie’s old office is by the state rooms on the first floor, near the top of the famous staircase lined with ascending pictures of Prime Ministers. Outside it is an ante-room that seems to serve no other purpose than to house random tidbits – silverware, donated artworks, gifts from visiting heads of state and suchlike. On a mantelpiece by Thatcher’s office was a wooden plaque with small fabric Union Jack encased in it and a lump of clear plastic at the top of it. The plastic contained four chunks of grit that, on closer inspection, turned out to be tiny bits of the moon. The whole thing was a gift from President Nixon to the Prime Minister in the 70s and the flag had actually been to the moon and back on one of the Apollo missions. It was an incredible piece of human history and yet it just sat there innocuously on the mantelpiece. I found it again when I came to work in No 10 several years later and it had been moved on to a table next to a fragment of the Chilean mine that collapsed in 2010 and a bizarre model of the front door of No 10 made out of sugar cubes. I occasionally daydreamed about putting it in my rucksack and walking home with bits of the moon on my person. Obviously I didn’t, but I probably could have got away with it.

*The press conference did, indeed, take place. Here’s proof.

Don't they look happy?

Don’t they look happy?

Sadly, it failed to take on the same level of coalicious symbolism as the one in the Rose Garden.

The spontaneous Mr Farron, an Andy Coulson joke & Charles Kennedy ‘stuck on a train’

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’.

Farron at the September 2010 rally. Possibly after nailing the Coulson joke.  Image by Alex Folkes/Fishnik Photography

Farron at the September 2010 rally. Possibly after nailing the Coulson joke. Image by Alex Folkes/Fishnik Photography

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.