Clegg and Huhne on Today: the verdict

I’ve just been listening to Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne’s head-to-head on the Today Programme. For a Cleggite, it made for pretty uncomfortable listening.

While I think Clegg was significantly better than Huhne at the hustings last week, the broadcast media is the real battleground in the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the public. And once again, Clegg came off as dramatically weaker than Huhne.

The difference was obvious. Huhne trotted off a series of clear and concise soundbites while Clegg waffled. It isn’t as if this problem hasn’t been remarked upon before; why hasn’t Clegg sorted it out?

And the problem goes a little deeper. Huhne has spent the last week at the centre of the party funding scandal for doing little more than opportunistically reporting the whole Abrahamsgate affair to the police. He even used those sharp elbows of his to get in on the BBC’s report on Vince Cable’s desire to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. Clegg meanwhile has only popped up to declare that he is expecting to win – a process story.

My entirely anecdotal evidence suggests that most over-40s I know seem to be coming out for Huhne. Given the over-representation of young people contributing to it, I am doubtful that YouGov’s poll over the weekend should have given Clegg quite as strong a position as it should have. Either way, he isn’t giving any late voters any strong reasons to vote for him.

Assuming he does get elected however, I do hope he will spend the Christmas break working out where he went wrong over the campaign and getting some serious media training.


  1. Absolutely agree, James. I now have serious misgivings about the possibility of young Mr Clegg being eaten alive if he does emerge victorious by whim of the nice-minded Lib Dem electorate. As one who had serious misgivings about the wisdom of electing Ming last time out (and therefore supported Chris Huhne then as well), I hope and pray I won’t have a second cause to go round moaning: “I told you so”.

  2. I also heard the interviews with Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg on the Today programme this morning and agree that there is no doubt that Huhne came over as the much clearer, succinct and effective communicator. He also sounded authoritative. I very much urge anyone who has not yet voted in this election to vote for Chris, as I fear that Nick could well prove to be another disappointment like Ming.

  3. It tends to be very frustrating when you are quite thoughtful about politics to summarise complex arguments into soundbites, but I do think it is possible to do without losing all intellectual content. Indeed, Huhne does it quite well. But while his wish to speak unfiltered and extemporaneously actually endears me to Clegg, you’re right that he is going to have to learn to sharpen it up. In fact, Obama had the same problem and it is no surprise that he went up in the polls when he sharpened up how he communicated.

  4. I agree Simon. I don’t think this is an insoluble problem for Clegg, which is ultimately why I voted for him. But I would have liked to have seen some sharpening up over the last few weeks.

    In the interview Clegg gave Millennium & co a couple of weeks ago, he seemed to acknowledge that he needs to improve in this area. I’m disappointed that he hasn’t already sought help – it isn’t over yet.

  5. I find it really interesting how differently people define what is good communication.

    I find it really offputting and unattractive when I hear politicians trot out over polished soundbites. I tend to switch off. They are so polished and shiny sometimes it is difficult to get past them to actually understand the meaning; and often sound bites are sorely lacking in meaning.

    Nick does feel his way through his sentences; to my ears that is alot more interesting and makes it easier to listen than a bunch of soundbites been fired off in my direction. It’s because he actually sounds like he is having a conversation, that he’s listening to both the question and is being thoughtful in his answer. It is less patronising and I think a lot braver

    So sure, there’s lots of um’s and er’s in the way that he speaks on the media but my guess is that even if the activists like you guys don’t like it, the voter that is somewhat disillusioned by spin and sleeze will find it more refreshing. It is undoubtedly different from most politicians.

    To my ears it sounds unrehearsed and therefore more authentic and sincere.

    Having said all that, any leader will need to adapt his style to the audience so he has perhaps some work to do to show that he can adapt to all your requirements.

  6. I’m not concerned about his ums and ers, I’m concerned at his ability to articulate a concise answer to a straight question on demand. I don’t deny he sounded sincere, but sincerity gets you nowhere when you just waffle, which is all I heard from him this morning.

    Incidentally, it isn’t as if Clegg doesn’t use soundbites – there was nothing in the interview this morning that I hadn’t heard dozens of times before already. It’s just that his soundbites are a bit rubbish.

  7. Ms Christie-Smith,
    I quite agree and I have no desire to see Nick turn into some NuLabour clone pivoting away from the question and relentlessly spouting talking points, but if he can find a way to just answer in shorter sentences, express some of his views in short, memorable phrases etc, then the argument tends to be more easily digested and remembered. Even if Nick does polish up how he puts his views across, his manner, unspun charm and sheer normality will combine to good effect.

  8. I agree with Simon and James. It doesn’t matter at all that Nick has a loose and informal communication style – it is a good thing, as Jo says. What matters is he doesn’t actually use it to say anything you can fix on and understand. On the online hustings he was using the the three-point model a lot and he was brilliant at it – why not just stick to that? I agree that Chris can sound slightly overspun – though I still think he packs a far more realistic punchiness into his sentences than most politicians. As ever, the ideal is somewhere between the two. Oh dear.

  9. I don’t recognise James’s analysis of the Today programme at all though I do agree that Chris is a master at getting his name out there and being part of the news agenda.

    I thought that on Today, Nick Clegg spoke well, naturally and elqoquently and had just as many soundbites as Chris. Other Lib Dem blogs, and also the Spectator blog (which has a vested interest in belittling the likely leader of our party) have even referred to Nick stumbling and stuttering all the way through the interview. I find this utterly bizarre as he did no such thing. The only “stuttering” came when asked about whether or not Vince Cable should have run for leader. After a hesitant start, he made a joke about Chris and he being grateful Vince didn’t run and then heaped praise on Vince – this was the perfect way of handling that question and quickly neutralised the one second of spluttering or stumbling.

    I thought it was a very evenly matched performance. Nick may not come across as polished and as robotic as Chris Huhne but that doesn’t mean that he is waffling. Nick came across as optimistic and positive, talking of the future and always taking care to referring to the specific needs and desires of voters outside of our own party. We need to be doing this more.

    Chris came across as professional, slick and sharp-shouldered. All these are very important and I don’t think many Nick fans would deny the fact that Chris has used his PR background to great effect in this campaign and should be congratulated on it. But Chris now needs to work on this creeping negativity he has – not just towards Nick but in general. It turns off Lib Dem voters and it will certainly turn off the wider electorate were he to beat Nick.

  10. I agree with Jo that Nick’s conversational style of communication is more what a voter is looking for rather than someone that has had all the personality punched out of them by media training. I think perhaps what he needs to learn is that its a case of ‘horses for courses’, in that if you are being interviewed on the Today programme, which is only listened to by nerdos and old people, then you need that concise punch to win the argument (which Huhne used effectively this morning) whereas if you are talking direct to the electorate on BBC or ITV then I think Nick’s unpolished-ness has a real chance to be a vote winner. Like Alix says the ideal is some kind of genetic hybrid.

    And Nick definitely does use soundbites – the phrase “policy wonk” is now starting to drive me insane.

  11. “Policy wonk” is also, just to be clear, a dig at Chris. So was the “beauty contest” line (which Caroline Q noticed as well). Nick does make negative comments about Chris. I’m not saying it’s wrong in the slightest. I just point out that he does.

  12. If this morning’s Today programme had taken place under the Queensberry rules, the referee would have stopped the fight before Clegg’s blackened face had suffered any more disfigurement.

    Like many members, I started out leaning toward one candidate but confident that, if the other guy won, it wouldn’t be disastrous and that certainly the loser would have an important role for the future. I am now seriously concerned that, if Nick becomes Leader and this kind of media performance were to continue, any half-competent Labour or Tory spokesman would have Nick for breakfast. Over an extended period, our public profile would suffer and our votes in key seats would not just tail off, they would nosedive.

    Many Lib Dem commentators on the blogosphere have described Nick’s style as “feeling his way” through his sentences. What does this actually mean? To me, it suggests that he actually doesn’t know what he wants to say. He can make it up pretty well on the spot, and there’s a certain dissociative charm about him doing so, but the whole situation implies either, at best, a lack of preparation or, at worst, a lack of direction. Is this really what we need from a political leader – an ability to sound clueless in an amiable way? This may inspire people to want to go for a pint with Nick, but I cannot imagine that many would consider voting for him (or, by extension, us) as a result.

    It is now no longer simply a legitimate difference of opinion between Cleggites and Huhnistas about what sort of communicator they are looking for (chatty or pointed) – Cleggites are now reduced to making weak apologies for the evident shortcomings of their candidate. So much for the self-appointed great communicator.

    If Nick wins, the party as a whole would have to be concerned about losing up to half of our current parliamentary strength. We simply couldn’t have another quick leadership election – we’d look like idiots. Our only saving grace would be to devise a strategy in which those who can do media stuff well – Chris Huhne, Vince Cable, even Charlie Kennedy – were trotted out for media appearances, and Nick Clegg was left to do the personal glad-handing. But if this has to be seriously contemplated as a strategy, what does it say about the Leader in the first place? I feel heartily sick about the prospect of this.

  13. Derek, I’m sorry to be rude but I have to say that I think that’s simply ridiculous. Nick is an accomplished politican, a natural communicator and a policy thinker who is respected outside of normal Lib Dem circles. He has been endorsed by national newspapers who talk about him as the authentic voice of liberalism.

    As Clegg supporter, I am perfectly comfortable with saying that Chris Huhne started as the underdog and has proved himself a canny operator during the leadership contest and is now going to give Nick a run for his money. That’s probably as it should be. Chris may not be the most ‘warm’ person when you see or hear him on the media but I can absolutely see that he is dead slick, tenacious and utterly self confident. I don’t find that hard to say. I’m not sure why some Huhne supporters are unable to show any such magnanimity and concede that Nick has his own set of positive qualities! Posts like yours reduce the whole thing to pantomime. You make Nick Clegg sound like Iain Duncan-Smith or someone else completely hapless with no sense of purpose. It’s a travesty of the situation.

    Some Nick fans think Chris is too smug and sanctimonious; some Chris fans think that Nick is too wooly and over-emotional. Supporters of each man will view those negative characteristics as a small part of their overall personality and point out their respective strong points. To elevate them into the entire reason not to vote for one of them is not realistic in my opinion. After all, the ‘normal’ Lib Dem members encounter the candidates only ad hoc, when they happen to turn on the TV or radio at the right time, or when they get stuff in the mail. I think that the voters have a clear choice between the different personalities and approaches of the two leaders and I can’t see very many of them agreeing that either man makes them “feel heartily sick”.

  14. Robin, I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate, but implying that I wrote that NICK makes me feel sick is a serious misrepresentation of my comment. What might make me sick is the prospect of the party suffering a serious decline in both popular support and electoral success (see above). Many activists who have trudged the streets for as long as I have, and others who have done so for much longer, would view such a prospect with an equally nauseating feeling. Hearing the Today excerpt today, that prospect seemed a lot more possible and immediate.

    I didn’t write that Nick has no qualities at all – I’ve spoken of them often myself. I have long thought that he is both thoughtful and witty, and his speeches are thought-provoking and entertaining. But a pre-scripted address is more comfortable ground than responses to questions from journalists, and the airwaves are not a place to find yourself. Our party has so few opportunities to pierce the public consciousness using the mainstream media – unless, like Cable or Huhne, you are skilled at expanding those opportunities – that they simply have to be taken advantage of. I used to be confident that either leadership candidate would do so more than adequately, but now am I not.

    This is beyond irony, of course, because Team Clegg has spent over a month telling us all that Nick is the superior communicator – a notion that, in respect of radio interviews like this one, beggars belief. Whether Nick wins or not, someone is going to have to give him a good shake (as James Graham’s original post suggested) or cover for him until he can make a fist of it, which I proposed. But today’s performance simply wasn’t good enough.

  15. This thread is all very well, but my original post wasn’t just about this morning’s Today. I was also making the wider point that Huhne has been incredibly pro-active during the week in elbowing into the news agenda, while Clegg has been laissez faire. He can present himself as authentic and unspun as much as he likes, but if he isn’t getting talked about he isn’t doing it right.

  16. Clegg almost seems scared of saying anything now lest he lose a few votes.

    I’d say that Clegg comes off best with people in the same room, whether in conversation or at a speech/Q&A. If he can cram millions of people into a room he’ll do well at the next election, unfortunately, however, the election will be won via the airwaves.

  17. Even though it was early doors I had to punch the air when Huhne dropped the limo bite but Clegg sounded like he had a bad night and too many celebratory beers the night before – lapsed into the usual wonk and tweedle dum rhetoric to sickening ill-effect. Scarily he struggled to articulate the “what defines the Lib Dems today” question. Maybe like Kinnock in 1992 to victory celebration came too early! I like Huhne’s performance consistency.

  18. Prior to this contest, I looked in vain for constructive contributions from Nick as Home Affairs spokesperson. I still cannot find any substantive content in his utterings. Chris comes over much better, now that Lynne has sharpened him up.

  19. I didn’t hear the Today hustings this morning, but the comments don’t surprise me based on what I saw on Sunday at the Winchester hustings.

    Chris’ communication skills are light-years ahead of what he was like last time. He does passionate, confident, authoritative, articulate and leader-like. He shows real thought and understanding when answering questions. When asked about the Labour donations he gave some real positive solutions for sorting out party funding. Nick by contrast called for legislation which already exists!

    The main points I took away from Nick on Sunday was that he is extremely good at passion (to the point of bursting a blood vessel), when he has a rehearsed speach. But on questions (which I can’t believe were that different in Winchester to any they have received elsewhere) Nick waffled, he did not answer the question asked and he lost the attention of the audience. In fact in response to a question on foreign affairs Nick actually started by saying ‘I’m not going to answer that question’ and then proceeded to give a mini-speech on a different subject. The only area he answered well was on Home Affairs, but then he if couldn’t do that I’d be really worried.

    These hustings cemented my support for Chris and as some comments above have said, made me scratch my head at the ‘stand-on-your-head-crazy-logic’ that says ‘Chris being good at communication and media is a bad thing’ and ‘Nick being unpolished, umming and erring a lot is a good thing’

    Wake up..wake up..before its too late!

  20. James,

    As you know we haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye over the years, but I have to say on your point about who has been the best communicator in this leadership contest then I could not agree with you more.

    We do need a leader who can perform clearly and successfully in the national media – the fact that Ming couldn’t was as fundamental, I think, to ending his leadership as the attacks on him over his age. As someone who has only watched, read and listened to this leadership contest through the media and who has not attended any hustings, I am consistently impressed by the strength and clarity of Chris’ media performances and just as consistently troubled by Nick’s stumbling and brittle approach and the fact that he can clearly be so easily rattled on air.

    I don’t believe that any new Lib Dem leader is going to have a honeymoon (why should Labour and the Tories allow them one?) in which they will have the time to grow into and improve in the job. I hope that if Nick does win, then he is able to shake off these poor performances and start afresh, but as this would be a much harder task to do then simply performing well in the media in the first place, I’m not all that confident it can be achieved.

  21. Leaving it a bit late there Marie.

    Out of interest, what is the FoE position on domestic micro wind these days? My impression is that it is not much use in a large majority of locations. I think George Monbiot has been opposing it too.

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