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David Cameron should learn from Nick Clegg — and speak more directly to the public

By Peter Hoskin
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If they tuned in, what might the Tory leadership have learnt from the first of Nick Clegg’s weekly appearances on LBC radio? Not much that they wouldn’t have known already. Some of the stand-out points included:

  • Voter anger… Almost all of the questions put to Mr Clegg by callers were, if not explicitly hostile, at least sceptical — and many of them focussed on cuts to benefits or to public services. In contrast to some of the rhetoric we’ve heard from Tory HQ, the Deputy Prime Minister’s responses were sensibly regretful. I lost count of how many times he said “difficult decisions.” At one point he said that he “took no relish” in agreeing to the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases.
  • …and apathy. One of the callers said that he had torn up his Lib Dem membership card. When asked who he’d vote for now, he replied that he “can’t support any party”. His will not be an isolated case at the next election.
  • The continuing emphasis on the income tax threshold and the pupil premium. In almost every response, Mr Clegg mentioned both the Coalition’s plan to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000 and the pupil premium, as well as policies such as those around apprenticeships. You can understand why: these are policies that the Lib Dems have fought for in Government. But some Tories will baulk at the thought of their Coalition partners seizing all the credit. As the next election approaches, there are likely to be plenty of skirmishes over authorship.
  • The solidification of the pro-EU case. Yesterday’s ConHome newslinks mentioned the “stealthy pro-EU fightback” that’s currently under way. Some of its main arguments were also put forward by Mr Clegg today. He agreed that the EU needs reforming, but added that “it’s about not whether you believe in reform or not, it’s whether you believe in jobs, jobs, jobs and, of course, safety.”
  • And, yes… Nick Clegg owns a onesie. Apparently, the Deputy Prime Minister was given a green onesie in Sheffield, but it has remained in its wrapping, unworn. Expect photographic mock-ups of him onesied-up in tomorrow’s papers.
But I hope the lesson that most struck Cameron & Co. was the success of the radio Q&A format. Part of it was Nick Ferrari’s lively hosting of proceedings: he allowed the six callers to respond to the Deputy Prime Minister, as well as asking two questions of his own, one based on a story in this morning’s newspapers (“What would you say to the President?”) and another more generic (“Why are you so unpopular?”). It was engaging, informal and largely unhurried. But part of it was also Nick Clegg’s contribution: there was politicking in what said, sure, but he was also relatively upfront and persuasive. The Lib Dem leadership must believe that he will gain respect for doing these Q&As. I’m sure they’re right.

Of course, David Cameron has himself done much to pioneer this sort of interaction between voters and politicians. His Cameron Direct meetings follow a very similar Q&A format to that on LBC this morning. But, over the past couple of years, the spirit behind such meetings has waned. Now, too often, it seems that PMQs is treated as the most important conversation that the Prime Minister has with the public, even though it has long been debased. Hours of his time are spent preparing for what is, on the whole, a grim display of attack lines, planted questions, bluster and caterwauling. This is no way to improve the public’s faith in Westminster, whereas the occasional radio Q&A might just be.

In fact, ‘tis similar to Tim’s recent piece of advice for the Prime Minister: “Give more one-to-one interviews and fewer speeches because you are at your most persuasive in these fora.” There are now other, sometimes better, ways for politicians to communicate than the old ways.


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