James Sorene: Mixing fun with politics

The head of comms for Nick Clegg has one of the toughest PR jobs in government but manages it with a sense of humour, finds Matt Cartmell.

James Sorene: mixing fun with politics (Emilie Sandy)
James Sorene: mixing fun with politics (Emilie Sandy)

James Sorene carries a plate of biscuits from the Cabinet Office past the legendary corridor to Number 10 and the imposing door of Nick Clegg's office, pointing out 'he's the ninth Cabinet minister I have worked for'.

When he teamed up with Clegg in January, Sorene took on the tough task of leading comms for arguably the coalition's most controversial politician.

As Clegg headed back to Birmingham for the Liberal Democrats' party conference this week, it brought to mind the heckling he received there in August during one of the post-riot walkabouts that Sorene organised. Sorene giggles with embarrassment when the subject is raised: 'My understanding of that situation is that a lot of people had started to gather. That seemed like a good time for him to leave and it was then that people started to bellow.'

Despite such hazards as the heckling and Clegg's spattering with blue paint last month while meeting Liberal Democrat members in Glasgow, Sorene says the most enjoyable part of the job is getting out and about. Another perk is the management of major news events, such as the economic stimulation speech that Clegg gave at the London School of Economics last week.

With a pedigree of handling major issues such as the 7/7 bombings and the swine flu outbreak, Sorene is positively buoyant about the task in hand.

'It's definitely the biggest job I have done so far,' he says proudly. 'It's such an incredible job. When Clegg says things, it makes the news. He is under an enormous amount of scrutiny and it is our job to deliver perfection.'

Sorene, 37, frequently peppers his conversation with comic sniggering, and is as open as one could expect a Whitehall civil servant to be, while erring on the right side of controversy.

However, he bristles somewhat when jokingly asked whether the door between the Cabinet Office and Downing Street has ever been locked on Clegg, as once happened to an outraged Sir Humphrey in Yes Prime Minister.

'Anyone who needs to get in there will be in there,' he explains with a hint of irritation. 'You can see the closeness of the relationship. The Prime Minister is just a few feet away.'

Sorene agrees that the number one question from the media is always about the existence of tensions within the Downing Street camp.

'They like tensions,' Sorene says of the media. 'They want there to be dramas.'

He frequently uses the term 'business-like' to describe the dealings between the two parties within Downing Street. Sorene adds that the arrangement works better than in some government departments at which he worked previously, where disagreements were routinely brushed under the carpet.

But surely the unusual coalition element currently within Downing Street brings a potentially treacherous political element to his civil service role?

Sorene pauses for thought. 'You're much closer to the action,' he admits. 'You can see a lot more and hear a lot more. But just because you're closer to the fence, it doesn't mean you have to cross the fence.'

He downplays the pariah status that has dogged Clegg, attributing it to 'part of a process of having a Deputy Prime Minister and a coalition government'.

But when asked if Clegg's image is improving, Sorene lets out a guffaw: 'If I say it's really good, I'll eat my words! It's not something I would worry about, how popular he is in the media. My role is to make sure they know what Clegg is doing and make sure he is understood.'

Department of Health deputy head of news Kate Pike worked with Sorene on the swine flu outbreak at the Department of Health and the reclassification of cannabis at the Home Office. 'James handles pressure extremely well,' she says. 'He's very calm and good at keeping morale up. He's good at dealing with complex issues and has a lot of knowledge about the economy and politics.'

Sleep seems to be an issue - Sorene has two sons aged three and five, combined with a working day that starts at seven in the morning and ends about eight at night, often with more work at home.

'I basically work,' he says of his life. 'I manage to get a few things done in between.' He recalls his wife telling him to go to a tanning salon before their wedding day as he was 'looking a little green'.

Sorene studied law at Queen Mary's University in London, but he soon gave up on it as a career option: 'I thought if I have to do this for the rest of my life, I'll be very bored.'

Politics became his preferred path as he found it delved into real life in a more dynamic way.

When Sorene was interviewed by Clegg for the head of comms job, he revealed another side to his character - a fleeting period as a stand-up comedian.

'I was entered into the Jewish Comedian of the Year, which was being judged by Maureen Lipman and Paul Kaye, who does the Dennis Pennis character.'

However, after considering a future of hawking his act around pubs and clubs, Sorene decided to leave it to others better equipped.

So what was Clegg's response to his unlikely previous career? 'He asked if I was funny. I said I wasn't bad,' Sorene smiles. 'Still, if I ever decide to leave the Civil Service, I guess it's an option.'

2011 Head of comms and official spokesman for the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Cabinet Office
2008 Head of news, Department of Health
2007 Deputy head of news, Department of Health
2006 Deputy head of news, Home Office
2005 Assistant director, news and strategy, Home Office
2002 Senior press officer, crime and drugs, Home Office
2000 Press officer, Home Office
1997 Head of public affairs, Embassy of Israel


What was your biggest career break?

Being appointed head of comms and official spokesman to Nick Clegg - it is an incredible job.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have worked with some amazing people, who have taught me a lot - Julia Simpson at International Airlines Group, Simon Wren at the MoD and Sian Jarvis at the Department of Health, to name three. All the ministers I have worked for have inspired me in different ways, but I am mostly inspired by the team I work with every day.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Get up early, work hard, stay focused, plan well in advance and never stop learning.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Energy, charisma, excellent writing and organisational skills, sharp news sense and a strong connection to the real world.

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