Last week I was stuck on a delayed flight north for three hours with Inverness MP Danny Alexander, the brains behind the Nick Clegg Lib Dem leadership campaign.
Alexander is one of the talented ‘young Turks’ responsible for electing Ming Campbell – in the full knowledge that he wouldn’t last too long. Ming sensibly left before he was pushed by the plotters meeting in my old watering hole, The Three Chairmen.
The delay to our flight north meant Alexander missed last Thursday’s BBC Question Time special programme with the two Lib Dem candidates, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. This was the most important day of the campaign because probably the entire 70,000 membership would be watching and it is their votes that count, not the single votes of other MPs.
The problem for the Clegg campaign is that his political views are probably to the right of most Lib Dem members. This may place him in the centre ground, where the party needs to be to prevent the Tories wiping it out at the next election, but it won’t help him win this particular election.
The ‘spinners’ from both camps were on full alert to claim their man had ‘won’ the debate, but the truth is there was very little media interest. The Guardian reported a slight win for Huhne, but completely missed the real story that Clegg had come though without being seen as ‘right wing’.
As usual with these contests, the media only really get interested if there is a good ‘split’ story – and the Huhne camp produced a belter. The Huhne team had prepared a secret briefing paper for the BBC Politics Show. Yes, political camps do this all the time; only this lot got found out. It didn’t help that they called it ‘Calamity Clegg’. The press had a field day. The problem is: the ‘young Turks’ have even younger, and more inexperienced, ones working for them.
One thing party members of all persuasions hate is internal splits and here one of the candidates was openly attacking the other in a very nasty way. Clegg was accused of a series of ‘flip-flops’ and other crimes. He could have ignored the attack, but it clearly suited him to make a fuss and keep it going.
Alexander will have been delighted with the bad publicity for Huhne, even though it may later be used by opponents outside the party. He shouldn’t worry, though – in their hearts, Lib Dem members may want Huhne, but their heads will tell them to vote for Clegg. As Tony Blair once said: ‘You may not like me, but you know I’m a winner.’ So is Clegg.