Nick Clegg: video killed the media star?

I’ve finally got around to watching Thursday night’s Question Time Lib Dem leadership hustings. Not much for me to add that hasn’t already been said by so many others. It was no knock out, but the clear consensus (which I agree with) is that Huhne won on points although Clegg recovered well in the second half. In the interests of balance though, I have to agree with Aaron Heath at Liberal Conspiracy: Huhne’s tie should be tried at the Hague for crimes against humanity.

I’m always being told that Huhne is boring and dry. He wasn’t on Thursday. He managed to combine passion and principle with clarity and intellect. Even at his best, Clegg only really scored highly on the first two.

I’m beginning to think that it may be TV that will do for Clegg. What’s clear is that while people like myself have been quick to point out that he’s a media star, it’s the newspapers – not the broadcasters – who are saying that. The Guardian has come out for him this weekend, but failed to come up with a good reason why. Apparently he is “fluent” – well, he hasn’t been fluent in either of his major TV tests so far, unless that fluency is in waffle.

Paradoxically, while the print media is more biased it can also be more forgiving of politicians’ shortcomings. Fluff a line in a newspaper interview and the journalist will always accept your second “take”. Fluff a line on live television on the other hand and it’s there for all to see. Steve Richards, newspaper journalist would never have exposed Nick Clegg in the way that Steve Richards, television interviewer did without even trying.

Clegg must surely realise this. Why then did he allow himself to get blindsided by Dimbleby’s interjection about an article he wrote during the last leadership election when he accused Huhne of opportunism. Surely there’s someone on his campaign team working on rebuttal? Like the tax fluff the week before, this should have been swatted away with ease.

Indeed, it is interesting to watch how Clegg dealt with Dimblebum: in short he didn’t. While Huhne was always quick to interject and get the last word (with those “sharp elbows” of his he was telling us about last week) and treated Dimblebum as a steam roller would a bicycle, Clegg kept listening to him, getting steered off course.

Daniel Finklestein is at least one print journalist for whom the penny is starting to drop:

Clegg is an intelligent and charming man, which is why journalists generally like him, but he seemed lightweight and uncomfortable last night. He hadn’t very good lines to take and his position on Trident (almost the only substantive thing he said) is incoherent.

This is serious stuff for Nick Clegg. Being “telegenic” has up until now been his biggest USP. It isn’t any more. He’d better manage to knock up something bloody spectacular on the Politics Show later today or his big mo will start to sink like a stone.

Incidentally, I notice that the Scott Press has started claiming that this election is a contest between a social democrat and a liberal. All I can say to that is that as someone who was arguing earlier this week for the party to put more emphasis on taxing income less and wealth more, and who is very conscious of the fact that the candidate closest to my own view on this is Chris Huhne, I was pleased to see the Guardian remind everyone this weekend that this position has at least one high profile exponent: J. S. Mill.


  1. Maybe orange-bookers should have an in-case-of-emergency vote Vince get-out clause, in case Clegg implodes Davis-style.

  2. Nick is not yet the finished article. He was right not to stand last time, and I do not think that 18 months later things has changed enough that he is ready now.
    I DO expect him to win, probably by a margin of 2:1. There seems to be a mystique about him in the party that I personally do not understand. If he does win, he needs to undergo an intensive session of questions and answers to make sure that he really does say what he intends to say.

  3. James, I agree with almost every word you wrote. I am more forgiving of Huhne’s QT tie – I try to claim that it matched the set, but my wife loathed it. On the other hand Nick’s tie was just dull and dire. I thought Nick faffing away with Dimbleby about his “opportunist” charge against Huhne from the last leadership campaign was just cringe-makingly awful. And I won’t really have it that Nick was right not to stand in the 2005 leadership election. His reason for not doing so (as is clear from the same Guardian article to which you have already provided a link) was that he thought Ming would be a success in the job. I, on the other hand, always thought the Ming leadership was likely end in tears and prove a cruel embarrassment to a fine man, which was I supported Chris Huhne last time too. Seems to me even I could claim, therefore, to have sounder political judgement than Nick Clegg!
    Geoffrey Payne: I have been tele-canvassing, and boy!: if you expect Clegg to win by a majority of 2:1 you ain’t living in the real world.

  4. Geofffrey – I think you are spot on.
    I have been underwelmed by Nick – I expected something special after his build up by some in the Party over the past three or four years. I think he can be a successful leader – but not yet. Chris has left him well in the shade I feel. I’m voting for Chris & as I have said elsewhere; Chris now – Nick in ten years.
    If Nick does get our top job I expect he’ll take or year or two for him to find his feet. I for one will not snipe from the side lines if happens – he will be a good leader – but will need time. Chris will hit the ground running.

  5. James; This is what the Guardian says about Clegg:

    ‘He is articulate, energetic and capable of presenting the Liberal Democrat case in a way that neither of its last two leaders were able to manage. He also has the support of the majority of his parliamentary colleagues – including those, such as Steve Webb, who are to his ideological left. He can speak with a fluent, engaging intelligence. There is reason to hope that under Mr Clegg’s leadership the party would find a new vibrancy, challenging Mr Cameron and Gordon Brown. If this newspaper was to cast a vote, it would be for him.’

    I don’t see how you can read that and say it doesn’t have a good reason to spport Clegg. In fact it has several – that he can unite the party, is an authentic liberal and can reach out to new voters for the Liberal Democrats. Of course, you might disagree with that reasoning, but it is nonetheless clearly there.

  6. Guardian reader: most of the reasons the Guardian gives for voting for Clegg boil down to his “fluency” and how “articulate” he is. He has not demonstrated this thus far in the election campaign; quite the reverse. I’d be amazed if having watched the Question Time, any Guardian Leader write would be able to look you in the eye and argue that Clegg is the “articulate” choice.

    As for unity, the majority of the party supporting a candidate will help the party to unite, not the opinion of the party elite. It is putting the cart before the horse to say that whoever has the most declared supporters is the unity candidate.

    If what you and the Guardian are saying is that they are putting a gun against the party’s head, then I’m tempted to call your bluff.

  7. James – something I disagree with you on. When you’re in a live tv debate with a politician from another party then it’s fairly easy to be robust in countering them if you’re good.

    If you’re debating somebody in your own party it’s much trickier without damaging the party longer term.

    My judgement is that Nick is thinking about the potential damage done to the party long term if he lays into Chris, while Chris is willing to burn his boats to become leader – but at the expense of saying things that will be used against us by our opponents.

    The vouchers stuff is spectacularly silly since I’ve heard Chris say that his views on education are basically identical to some sorts of vouchers….

  8. He or she who is without sin – feel free to throw the first stone! Perhaps there should be some rules laid down about not slagging off your opponent (from our party) on prime-time TV, however slippery they might be on policy. I just hope I don’t see too many of our MPs queuing up behind TV cameras and microphones to slag off Huhne the way they did Charles Kennedy in the coming days.

  9. It’s like I’ve always said – this contest is Cleggs to lose and he does not want to win it after Huhne has embarrassed him on several occasions because the voters will never respect him, even if the Lib Dems vote him in with a comfortable leadership victory.

  10. I have never belonged to any organized Party, but I almost did at the age of 69 in 2OO7 when Vince Cable made his dazzling entrance on to the Commns stage, probably because of him representing some irresistible and admirable qualities perhaps more associated with politicians of the past. Only David Owen almost made me commit myself before, but my caution was justified …My respect for Vince Cable is strong enough to join preferably the Dems without the Libs as apparantly enough people would to turn the Party into the overnight sensation it has been dreaming of for years…I am, however, too old to associate myself with futile and unwise games like the Commons walkout, the abstentions concerning the EU referendum (the Lib-Dem of all parties..), “35+ lovers” bloomers (not exactly impressing female voters..) etc. My suggestion was to make Vince the leader at least until after the next Election.. Young Clegg, his deputee, would have gained more and valuable exprience at this level , especially working together with someone as exprienced and well-qualified in British politics as Vince, and might then be the right man to represent the perhaps 1OO+ new MPs in the Commons….. Paulus

  11. I suspect Mr.Brown is more interested in what the voters rather than the opposition think of the terror legislation. Some of the polls appear to confirm this..He may also be more aware than anybody of any SERIOUS threats to this country AND he is a man of integrity, whatever the oppositiion has thrown at him, including global issues (fuel, economy etc) that are, of course, beyond his control. The Tories are
    now resorting to bizarre and desperate stunts at any price that should have no place in British politics . Confrontation for the sake of confrontation is too transparent for the intelligent voter. The Lib-Dems should not be too eager to become part of this farce f

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