Off to conference, and as a SPECIAL PRIZE for being on the short-list for Liberal Democrat Diary of the Year (again!) my fellow diarists and I were invited to meet His Divine Imperial Supremacy, Ruler of the Universe (and environs), Grand Mugwump of the Muggles and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Mr the Merciless himself in person.
So there I was, fluffy baby elephant and there he was, party leader.
Gazing into those wise yet beady eyes, it is hard not to be INTIMIDATED… and yet, I thought Sir Mr the Merciless bore up very well.
(Particularly since I stayed hiding in a bag behind the sofa and made Daddy Richard ask the questions!)
In fact, because I am VERY BUSY there was only time for one question each before we had to send Sir M on his way (I have appointed him to deputise for me at certain ceremonies).
But he was very generous with his answers, making it clear that he wants to be open and transparent and that he thinks that the Wibbly Wobbly Web is one of the ways to reconnect with the up to 40% of people who seem to have given up on voting in elections. That is probably why he is appointing Mr Steve Wibbly Wobbly Webb to take over chairing the Federal Policy Committee for him in the run up to the General Election. Ahh, yes, it seems that Sir Mr the Merciless is taking the rumours of a snap Autumn election VERY SERIOUSLY.
Sir M was also honest when Mr Paul asked him about what he thought had been his MISTAKES in the first year of his leadership (one of the questions Daddy Alex had been thinking about asking). He said that he had underestimated just how much of his time would be taken up by party administration – that almost everything that is causing a problem for the Liberal Democrats finds its way across his desk sooner or later. (Hold that image when you next think of Mr Balloon and the problems HE causes!)
Being open and honest, Sir Mr the Merciless was keen to stress that the interview was all on the record, that there were no secrets. On the one fluffy foot, this was very commendable, but on the other it also made for his answers – and to an extent our questions – being tempered and “political”. It would have been nice to discuss what he felt about the squeeze that the two other parties are putting upon us. Since the last general election, the annunciation of Mr Balloon and then the ascension of Mr Frown have coincided with a decline in our opinion poll ratings from around 22% to around 16%. Now anyone has got to think that that is SOME kind of problem (although I am NOT one of those who immediately blame that on the leader – there are too many other factors).
Sir Mr the Merciless WAS able to HINT that he recognises the problem himself when he talked about the fact that we are coming under fire from both the Conservatories AND the Labour. In previous elections the Labour and the Liberal Democrats have seen a common enemy in the Conservatories. Now that has changed: with the possibility of a HUNG PARLIAMENT both of the other parties have decided that they cannot get enough votes from their own supporters and have set their sights on OURS. It is no longer two-against-one but now one-against-two.
But then they have always BOTH been the traditional enemy: they are both authoritarian, centralising, sectional interest parties and increasingly regional ones too, with the Labour falling back to the north and the Conservatories making no progress outside of the south. Only the Liberal Democrats remain a truly ONE NATION party!
We DO still need to find the “magic words” that will fix our message in people’s minds, focus their attention on the real choice between a Liberal future or the NuToryLAbour No Future.
Mr James had asked about this idea of a “narrative” – first brought up in the “Meeting the Challenge” debate that led to last year’s “Trust Making Britain Fairly Green for People”; and then Mr Clogg raising the idea again earlier this year. What IS the narrative then, Mr James wanted to know.
Although Sir Mr the Merciless talked about “Free Green and Fair”, not just a slogan but a manifesto, I felt that we were STILL SEARCHING for those words, that we haven’t found how to make the breakthrough.
It would be all too easy to let Liberalism become a conversation between academics and politicians. He wants FREEDOM to mean something to all the real people, too. This is TRUE and GOOD… but we’re not getting that message across and we need to work out why.
Daddy Alex developed this point further, linking the Party’s message and appeal to the Leader’s personal CHARISMA when he asked about people’s perception of Sir Mr the Merciless himself. For all the good things that he has done, getting the party over it’s “local difficulties”, sorting out the organisation and restoring the morale of the MPs, the point remains that out campaigning, people used to say “ooh, I like that Captain Paddy,” or “ooh, I like that Cheeky Charlie.” No one has yet to say “ooh, I like that Sir Mr the Merciless” – what is he going to do about that?
“Of course I WANT people to like me,” said Sir Mr the Merciless, blasting Daddy Alex with force lightning from his fingertips. “But you need to compare like with like: at this point when they were leader, no one like Paddy or Charles either. I know I didn’t!”
Sir M told Daddy that he is going to “take on” the “age issue” this week, and try to turn it around – like Mr Ronald Raygun, the senile doddery old actor who became President of America – he promises not to take advantage of the inexperience of the younger men. He will play up the benefits of maturity and experience, though. “If there’d been a few more people my age around Lord Blairimort’s Cabinet table,” he added, “we might not have had such a rush into war.”
He wants to shift his own time into CAMPAIGNING, to getting out and meeting people. He was keen to stress how people, especially young people, have not lost interest in POLITICS, only in POLITICIANS. He gave the example of the political panels at the Edinburgh book festival, with Mr Andy Marr or Mr Jeremy Paxo or Mr Captain Paddy: they all sold out in minutes. Sir Mr the Merciless could only get into see Captain Paddy by agreeing to CHAIR the panel!
(We tempted him to comment on media cynicism. He said that that was always dangerous for politicians – just look at how over the top Lord Blairimort’s “Feral Beast” speech had been… but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a kernel of truth in what the former Prime Monster had had to say too.)
And it’s important to remember, he reminded us, that unlike Mr Charles or Captain Paddy, Sir Mr the Merciless doesn’t have to be a “one man band”. He is right about that, and about the importance of him putting the “bright young people” – Ms Jo, Ms Lynne, Mr Danny, Mr David, Ms Julia and many others – in the “shop window”.
He will be also taking Mr Vince “Power” Cable off the leash – Mr Vince is VERY CROSS about Mr Balloon trying to claim he is the first politician ever to talk about the credit crisis, something Mr Vince has been talking about since before Mr Balloon was out of his Etonian short trousers. Voice quivering with RAGE, Mr Vince declaimed: “Ooh, the little blighter!”
“Speaking of being a one-man band,” interjected Daddy Alex bravely (and still smouldering a little bit) “this European referendum: what did you think you were DOING?”
Sir Mr the Merciless explained that he was asked the question and, in his game, you don’t get to say “wait for the consultation session”, at least not if you don’t want to end up with Mr Balloon’s reputation for vacillation. Again referring to his openness, he said that he was the leader and, as he had in the nuclear weapons debate in Spring, he made his opinion clear and that he would never want the party not to know his position. That’s fair enough, but perhaps we could do with him EXPRESSING that a position is his opinion, because that is a SUBTLE difference that would be lost on most of the party and ALL of the media.
Mr Jonathan followed up with the final question, wanting to know what a European In/Out referendum would achieve. Sir M explained that he was an unabashed, wholly committed pro-European and that he wants the chance to MAKE that case, a case that has been let drift for ten years. Lord Blairimort never saw it as more than another photo opportunity while Mr Frown cannot get out of Brussels fast enough. He wants to lead the campaign and have the thought of Europe, the benefits and opportunities – all that stuff I explained the other day, in fact – bring that to the forefront of people’s minds so that they know what Europe is worth to them.
And then it was apologies but time to go, expressed with the hope that rather than a one-off, this might be the beginning of an ongoing conversation. I think that that would be rather a good idea (even hiding in a bag, I would say that). Assuming that an INCONVENIENT General Election does not get in the way, it would be nice for our brave panel of interviewers (in a bag, remember) to call back in a month or two and see if and how things have changed.
We will see if anything comes of it.
[*] Sunday morning, actually. Saturday was my Cousin Jamie’s birthday party. HAPPY BIRTHDAY JAMIE! We got him Star Wars Lego and Doctor Who DVDs. Who mentioned the Jesuits??!?!