There’s one thing I meant to blog about following the announcement of the Lib Dem leadership which up until now I haven’t got around to.
In an interview with Jon Sopel immediately after the leadership election result announcement on Tuesday, Chris Huhne yet again recited the rubric that the “Calamity Clegg” dossier was misnamed by a “junior researcher” without Huhne’s knowledge. Right now, said junior researcher is probably feeling pretty low at the moment. When your candidate is the underdog and is pipped at the post by just 511 votes, it is pretty hard to deny that things like this made a real difference. Speaking personally, I am in no doubt that if the Calamity Clegg thing hadn’t blown up in Huhne’s face he would now be leader.
But this researcher shouldn’t be made to feel all that bad about it and I hope this episode hasn’t disenchanted them. Anyone who followed the campaign will recognise that Huhne had been pushing Clegg pretty hard on his position on public services for weeks before that fateful Politics Show and it was clear that for a long time he was doing it because of a perceived electoral advantage rather than because he genuinely didn’t know the answer or thought Clegg had something to hide. That’s largely Team Clegg’s fault – they should have nipped it in the bud long before it came to a head by going on the offensive and challenging Huhne to sign up to an X-point pledge on public services. If they hadn’t been so pathologically afraid of ever going on the offensive, Huhne would never have been able to make so much headway*. Nevertheless, I do think Huhne crossed a line about a week before the Politics Day incident. If his point was about Clegg’s poor communication skills, he should have started ramming that point home. Instead what he continued to push was the suggestion that Clegg was a rabid rightwinger in disguise. That was Huhne’s mistake, not a junior researcher.
The other factor is, the more junior the researcher, the more likely it was that they were simply doing what they understood to be their job. The office culture is key. “Calamity Clegg” didn’t come from nowhere. It was almost certainly a phrase which had been going around the office, mouthed from time to time by senior team members. They were almost certainly too experienced to have made the mistake, but if they had been using that kind of language the less experienced members of their team could be forgiven for assuming it was okay to put in a press briefing.
I’ve worked in highly pressured political offices and know what its like. I’ve made horrible mistakes like this that have made me feel wretched. Fortunately, I’ve never been in such a situation whereby such mistakes get loudly condemned by senior politicians on live television. Chris sold himself on his strong management credentials, but this blame game doesn’t come across as good management to me. Leave the poor guy (or guyess) alone.
* This incident reminds me of the Hartlepool by-election campaign when Jody Dunn was left on the dangle over her now infamous blog post. What should have been a golden opportunity to turn it around and present Labour as being soft on crime and anti-social behaviour (“I’m sticking up for the people of Hartlepool who are sick of how anti-social behaviour has risen under Labour; Iain Wright is siding with the drunks and people with dangerous dogs” etc) became a noose which was draped around her neck. I have the horrible feeling that the same people who left her on the dangle were behind Clegg’s campaign as well, and none of them could be described as junior.