Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt’s must-read account of the Liberal Democrats in coalition provides noteworthy details about the attempt to unseat Nick Clegg as Liberal Democrat leader in the aftermath of the June 2014 elections although misses some key reasons why the plot failed and failed so badly.
So here’s my stab at collating reasons:
- The plotters didn’t have experience: for any follower of the many, many attempts to have a leadership coup in the Labour Party, the comments of Lib Dem MP John Pugh has a very familiar ring to it: “to my astonishment” Lib Dem MPs who said to him in private they would support a change of leader didn’t then do so in public. Yet this is like rain in summer: possibly undesirable yet certainly predictable. It’s what happens with leadership plots. To have a chance of succeeding you need to be ready to deal with the predictable, not be derailed by it.
- The plotters didn’t have an alternative leader: again, see Labour experience passim. The leader plotters want doesn’t always get it (hello, Michael Heseltine) but a plot without a leader is usually a plot without a chance. In this case, Vince Cable was bluffed into walking away from the plot in a way reminiscent of just how Brown’s team often saw off plots and others didn’t want to step up because…
- The plotters didn’t have a persuasive strategy: too many people (including MPs who fancied being Lib Dem leader) weren’t persuaded by the plotters’ strategy. That was ‘change leader and things will improve’ whilst others thought ‘a new leader in coalition will have just as much trouble as the current one’. And on that point…
- The plotters didn’t have evidence: Matthew Oakeshott certainly spent lots of money on polling to provide it, but his evidence didn’t stack up. One problem was the highly unusual methodology used – so different from what pollster ICM usually does that they attached a special health warning to the polls. The other was that the polls didn’t show the party doing much better with another leader. The boost to the Lib Dems in different constituency polls with Vince Cable as leader, for example, ranged from zero points to four points, averaging under two. That’s barely a twitch, and the reality was always likely to be less than the abstract given the barrage of, “So do you still agree with the policy you steered through Parliament for increasing tuition fees?” a Cable leadership would have been greeted with.
- The plotters didn’t have grassroots support: in theory, the grassroots of the party could have forced a leadership election regardless as the party’s rules allow for it. Yet when it came to it, local party after local party said ‘no’ and the attempts to communicate on a large scale with members via the online world (social media and more traditional online media) were rather limited. Imaginative tactics were mostly absent. Online ads targeted at party members – a rough but doable target – were notable by their absence, for example, even though a little burst of advertising would have been cheap compared to the polling and could have injected extra momentum. Which was something the plot was very short on…
- The plotters didn’t have momentum: the fact that 60 local parties ended up discussing the leadership wasn’t played in a way that maximised momentum, rather in a way that helped kill it. That’s because the only public tallying of how many local parties were discussing the issue was done by me, and by the nature of the information gathering much of it came in after the decision in a local party. So what could have been a long list of local parties that were going to raise the leadership, generating momentum, instead became a long list of local parties mostly saying ‘no change, thanks’.
- The plotters had unhelpful out-riders: being aggressive or even rude towards others isn’t a good way to persuade them to change their mind. As the two candidates in the current Liberal Democrat leadership race are witnessing, it’s easy to end up with overly aggressive and rude supporters who end up putting others off. However, what the Lamb and Farron camps are getting right is also having many advocates who set out to charm and persuade – and that works. What the plot lacked was anything like a similar balance, leaving the field to be dominated by self-defeating advocates rather than helpful ones.
- The plotters didn’t prepare tactfully: if you’re not familiar with events, you may well read the first seven and conclude that they amount to ‘the plotters didn’t prepare enough in advance’. There’s some truth in that, but really the problem was they got the worst of both worlds. Not enough advanced preparation to overcome those other seven problems, but enough advanced plotting for Clegg’s team to be able to use very persuasively with many people the argument, “Whilst we were fighting the European and local elections, they were off plotting”. That was a very effective message in those crucial few days. Tactful advanced preparations are possible (as both Farron and Lamb have demonstrated), but it’s hard to do well.
Or in other words, you need a plausible message, a standard bearer, momentum and helpful advocates, tactfully prepared. The plotters didn’t.