Mr Smug, Mr Smarm and my naked ballot paper

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

With time running out in the Lib Dem leadership election, I’ve finally thought of something that might make me vote – even though the one thing I’ve been certain of all along is that I don’t want either candidate in charge of my party.

When the election kicked off I was desperately hoping a third candidate would emerge so I wasn’t stuck with the unappealing choice between a candidate I didn’t rate and a candidate I didn’t like. Anyone would have done – John Hemming even – but no such luck.

Chris Huhne had failed to impress me as a possible leader during the previous contest. I seem to remember writing at the time that a grey man in a grey suit could never be a successful leader of a political party which needed to fight for every scrap of attention.

And since then I’ve learned from contacts that his press connections from his time as a journalist don’t necessarily represent a reservoir of stored-up goodwill that he can exploit. The broadsheet hack and ex-subordinate of Huhne who told me “a more self-contented man you will rarely find” didn’t strike me as itching to write positive pieces about how well the Lib Dems were doing under his leadership.

My problem with Clegg, on the other hand, stems from his manner – he flunked the all-important ‘first impressions’ test quite spectacularly when I met him and the famous charm that’s supposed to make him the great communicator simply repelled me.

Distilled to its basics, he seemed false – that deadly quality the Big Brother / I’m a Celebrity worshipping masses despise above all others (except being a nonce, or an asylum seeker, or the manager of the England football team).

Nevertheless, I was prepared to consider voting for him as leader when the contest started. I was aware that, while my objection to Huhne was based on his abilities, my objection to Clegg was based on a personal prejudice that others might not share. Plus, the press wanted him as leader and after what they did to Ming I couldn’t see the point in disobeying.

Not so now.

Clegg’s stuttered his way through the campaign, showing flashes of the qualities his supporters revere but no consistent demonstration of Messiahdom. Like the perfect ripe peach, he’s beautiful to look at but bruises dreadfully the moment he’s thrown to the floor and kicked around a bit.

Consider it this way: if Nick Clegg were a yachtsman he’d win every single fair-weather race handily, leaving his rivals trailing in his wake as he cruised nonchalantly into the distance with a glass of chilled white in one hand and a cute blonde on his other arm.

But in foul weather racing he wouldn’t make it to the first marker buoy before disaster struck and he sank like a stone, struggling feebly as he disappeared beneath the waves.

So where would Chris Huhne be, in that overstretched and laboured metaphor?

Not in the race at all – he’d be in a submarine underneath it, ready and waiting to torpedo the leader. One moment the hot favourite is sailing serenely along, the next they’re fatally holed below the waterline and Huhne’s sewing another bar onto his Jolly Roger.

It’s a talent he has, and he’s demonstrated it in both leadership contests so far. Campbell’s aura of gravitas – gone. Clegg’s reputation for communication – gone. It may not win him the race, but it leaves his victims fatally weakened and easy meat for the circling sharks of the press and the other parties to devour at their leisure.

Which is a pretty good argument to vote for him in this leadership contest, when you think about it.

And I am thinking about it, seriously. Because if he can do that to our chaps, think what he can do to the enemy.

From being ‘definitely not Huhne, but twist my arm and I might vote Clegg’, I’ve now moved to exactly the opposite position.

You see, the way I look at it, our next leader has just one task beyond the basic one of demonstrating the minimum level of competence to avoid the party being laughed at – and that’s to nobble David Cameron by fair means or foul.

The Labour government was crumbling long before Gordon Brown took charge of it – his task was to stick his thumb in the dyke and delay the inevitable for as long as possible. He’s in the process of failing, thanks in part to Twinkletoes Cable’s surgically precise brutality.

So that’s half the task done already, but if Cameron is still on the field of play at the next election it won’t help us as we’ll be hit from both sides: a resurgent Tory party and a Labour ‘stop the Tories’ scare campaign.

Be clear on this: the threat isn’t from the Conservative Party as a whole – when seen in bulk they’re still the same mix of swivel-eyed loons and chinless nonentities they’ve been for years. The threat is from Cameron, who has the knack of making you ignore the rest of the party and concentrate instead on the handfuls of magical pixie dust he’s throwing in the air to obscure them.

Remove Cameron, however you do it, and there’s no-one to replace him. End result: ice cream and jelly for Liberal Democrats.

Based on his performance so far, Chris Huhne might just be the man to kick Cameron in the knackers. He won’t rely solely on the power of argument, and he won’t be content (as Ming told me he was) to wait for Cameron to self-destruct.

And I hate the Tories with such visceral loathing that I’m almost keen to see how he’d do it.

Based on his handling of Clegg, he’ll twist something Cameron once said into something it didn’t actually mean, and then dominate the agenda by endlessly demanding the poor sod clarify what he meant by it.

Instead of skipping gaily through the flowers saying “hullo clouds, hullo sky” like Fotherington-Tomas, Cameron will find himself tearing his hair out repeatedly denying he ever suggested that single mothers should have their children taken away from them or that a 15ft wall should be erected on the English-Welsh border.

The trouble with us Lib Dems is that, ‘dirty tricks’ bleating from by-election losers notwithstanding, we play far too fair with our opponents. While they spout nonsense about how ‘just one vote for the Lib Dems in this seat will let Margaret Thatcher / Neil Kinnock eat your babies’, we hop up and down feebly saying ‘um, excuse me, that’s not actually true’ and getting ignored.

If the only way to destroy Cameron is to lie, cheat, mangle the truth, hit below the belt and generally behave like a cross between Karl Rove and Ric Flair, then maybe that’s the way we should play it.

And one thing’s for sure – Nick Clegg’s not the right man for that particular job. Because if we’re about to march willingly towards the special hell reserved for bad politicians, we at least need to make sure the man leading us there is capable of killing, not wounding, when he strikes the blow that sends us that way.

So I’m really, really tempted to vote Huhne.

Except, even as my pen’s hovering over my naked ballot paper, there’s a part of me saying “No – it shouldn’t be that way”.

Maybe the political reality is that we need to play the man, not the ball. But I’ve never been very good with reality. I don’t want to live in a world where that sort of tactic is the right sort of tactic. And I don’t really want to endorse it with my vote.

So that’s where I am at the moment. And if you’re a Huhnista and you’ve read this far – leave a comment and give me a reason to vote for him.

Don’t base it on his policies, because I don’t care about policy. Both candidates passed the PPC selection process, so they’re ideologically sound and that’s good enough for me.

Don’t base it on his personality, because I don’t think he’s got much of one and I don’t particularly like what he has got.

Don’t base it on his ability to communicate, because if what you’re communicating is wrong then the better you are it the more damage you do.

Don’t base it on how I’ve got him all wrong and he’s actually a nice guy, because that will remove the only quality that makes him worth voting for in my eyes.

Instead, reassure me that he’ll be as lethal aiming outwards as he has been aiming inwards.

Because if I’m going to sell my soul to the Devil, I want to be as sure as possible that the reward will have been worth the cost to my idealism.

14 responses to “Mr Smug, Mr Smarm and my naked ballot paper”:

  1. Anonymous Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 6:59 am

    “Both candidates passed the PPC selection process”

    Obviously so did Colin Breed and John Pugh.

  2. Andy Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 8:27 am

    So did I, come to that…

  3. John Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 8:33 am

    Huhne is political Vim! Not something you buy because you love it particularly, not a luxury, more of a necessity. Force, energy vigour – he has. And personally I like to see a leader carrying a placard in a demonstration – the political equivalent of rolling your sleeves up and getting your hands dirty. I think he will use Kennedy to good advantage – which I want. He’s assertive – very! My worries about Huhne stemmed from him not being able to smile and talk at the same time, his small majority and lack of MP support – but then the last election the MP’s choice wasn’t the right one!

  4. Ed Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 8:37 am

    Just about the most interesting and intelligent posting on the leadership contest that I have read. Would you drop me an email, Andy?

  5. Charlotte Gore Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 9:42 am

    If the party leader is supposed to be the party personified, if they’re supposed to be a metaphor for the whole movement then really Clegg is the only logical choice if increasing our party’s vote share is the objective.

    This isn’t a vacancy to head up the party’s general election campaign, or to run our campaigns in general. Why would Huhne’s willingness and ability to campaign negatively have a positive impact on decisions on whether or not he’s the right person to represent our party to the British public?

    Electing the dirty campaigner is the wrong thing to do. Think about what message that would send to the British public, what people would think if they knew we’d elected someone in the hope that they would, “…lie, cheat, mangle the truth, hit below the belt and generally behave like a cross between Karl Rove and Ric Flair”?

    No way I could support a party that behaves like that. It’s disrespectful to the public and the electorate. If you don’t respect them, if you’re willing to lie to them then you’re no better than the others.

  6. Paul Walter Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 9:52 am

    I think you just need to look at couple of ways he stitched up Cameron on green issues – not least making sure everyone knew he had a “shoe chauffeur” driving behind him when he cycled to work.

    More recently he has done it to Labour through asking the police to investigate donorgate.

    Excellent post.

  7. Andy Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    John: I think you’ve just written the concise, non-cynical version of my screed! Agree with you about the demos. His majority doesn’t bother me – that’ll go up from the exposure whatever happens.

    Ed: have been meaning to drop you a line – it’s been a few years since Norwich, hasn’t it?

    Charlotte: That’s my whole point, really. I agree with most of what you say, it’s just – I remember the last Tory government and part of me is thinking any amount of playing dirty is worth it to avoid another one.

    Paul: Thanks very much!

  8. Linda Jack Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    I thought I already left a comment, but perhaps I was dreaming!

    Interesting post and really important points. However, two considerations that I think you may have overlooked.

    Firstly, leadership is about more than communicating to the outside world, but it is a lot about that and I don’t think Chris does that effectively enough, I think you really need an Oxbridge First and enormous concentration, to follow him, which is great for the great and the good amongst us, but some of us only managed a 2:1…….and not from Oxbridge!

    Secondly, it is also about the whole scope of leadership. The leader has to straddle 3 horses – the electorate, the party – especially the activists and the parliamentary party. Have political legs too short to effectively straddle all 3 and you are heading for trouble. My fear with Chris is that his legs won’t quite stretch to the parliamentary party.

  9. Ed Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 6:15 pm


  10. Ed Says:

    December 5th, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Sorry that (9.) was a reply to Andy (7.), not to Linda (8.). D’oh!

    (Linda, I would have thought ‘not getting on with the Parliamentary Party’ would have been right at the top of your list of requirements for a party leader! ;-)))

  11. lynne f Says:

    December 6th, 2007 at 8:45 am

    Great analysis and blog post. As Chair of Chris’s campaign (which is only fair to state at outset) couldn’t resist your ‘ask’ for a comment as to why you should vote for Chris.

    Leadership is the roughest game in town. The media adore Vince at the moment (a) because he’s having a ball and b)no doubt an effort in redemption for their mercilessness toward Ming) but that will end abruptly as we announce our new leader. Neither candidate is perfect – but I have absoutely no worries about Chris’s ability to deal with whatever is thrown at him – and given what will be thrown – the initial baptism of fire will colour the leadership and the LibDems in perpetuity.

    I could give you loads more reasons to vote for Chris – ability to get coverage, ability to think on his feet, brilliant termperament when the going gets rough and so on – but you asked for one!

  12. Andy Says:

    December 6th, 2007 at 2:45 pm


    I haven’t paid all that much attention to Chris’s legs, so I’ll have to trust you on that one. Must admit, though, as the bearer of a mere Desmond I had a bit of difficulty in following your lofty 2:1 language.

    But to be serious, your arguments cover a lot of the reasons I didn’t support him last time and didn’t expect to be considering supporting him this time. However, if he can kill Cameron then that alone takes the pressure off in so many of the areas he’s a bit weak.


    Thanks for the comment, which created a pleasing circularity as almost the first thing I did in this leadership contest was leave a comment on your blog – a sadly unsuccessful attempt to urge you to stand.

    We need one of two things in a leader, as regards the press. They need either to be fireproof, as you say Chris is and as Nick appears not to be in the way we hoped, or they need to be exempt from attack because the media rather likes them and will cut them a lot of slack – see much of the Cameron leadership, Ming when shadowing foreign affairs, or the whole of the Reagan presidency. There was some hope that Nick might fall into that second category (Chris clearly doesn’t) but this campaign has created a big question mark over that point.

    ‘Vote for my man because he can stand up to bullies’ is a pretty unhappy rallying cry, though, because of what it says about politics at the moment. Dammit – why didn’t you stand?

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.