Nick Clegg goes from communicator of the year to Calamity Clegg – in just one year

Former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson famously observed that a week was a long time in politics, current Liberal Democrat leader and coalition government deputy prime minister Nick Clegg might concur.

He would certainly agree that things have changed a lot, and not how he hoped, since his party negotiated the coalition agreement with David Cameron’s Conservatives a year ago.

Clegg then was riding high on his performances in the television debates between then PM Gordon Brown, himself and Cameron and, while this didn’t turn into more seats for his party, managed to negotiate a role in government for himself and the Lib Dems.

This morning however he’s woken to see Liberal Democrat councillors all but wiped out in yesterday’s local elections and a likely resounding defeat in the vote over first past the post and the Lib Dems’ favoured Alternative Vote (AV) system in Parliamentary elections.

Calamity Clegg was the soubriquet suggested by fellow coalition government minister Chris Huhne when the two fought for the job of Lib Dem leader a few years ago. To make life even worse for Clegg, Huhne now seems to be positioning himself for another tilt at the leadership.

So where did it all go wrong for Nick?

Specifically he and his ally business secretary Vince Cable walked into a car crash over student tuition fees, something the Lib Dems had pledged to abolish in their election manifesto. They ended up endorsing a tripling of student tuition costs under a new system. Even worse they claimed this was their policy, one which was fairer for students.

Well fairer or not (and that’s debatable) anything that costs three times as much (university fees rising in many cases from £3,000 a year to £9,000) is hardly going to look like a good deal to either students or their parents.

But maybe the real problem was that Clegg and Cable began to believe their own publicity, they thought they could leverage their popularity with the public to the extent that they could spin their way out of an impossible position.

You can’t, as in a different and rather more serious context president Barack Obama’s White House is finding with its inept handling of the circumstances of Osama bin Laden’s death. You don’t start with an outright fib (that bin Laden was killed in a firefight), especially when you also issue pictures of the president and his team watching the event live courtesy of a Navy Seal’s helmet camera.

Veterans of the PR trade used to say that you either tell the truth or say nothing. But the pressure these days to say something is immense, as is the pressure to try to turn every utterance into a positive headline.

Again, sometimes you just can’t.

Back to the UK, Clegg now has to save his leadership and his party by telling the truth as he sees it (not how he’d like to see it) or shutting up. But it may be too late for that.

If he wants to see an effective political communicator in action he should look north of the border to Scotland where Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond has run rings around the other parties (including the Labour Party, traditionally the biggest party in Scotland) and has been rewarded with a resounding election victory.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.