Richard Holme admits to a sense of ’loss’ at failing in his five
attempts (spread over 23 years) at winning election as a Liberal MP. But
not securing a seat in the Commons has done nothing to prevent him from
becoming one of the most influential of the party’s hierachy.
Created a life peer in 1991, Holme was Liberal Democrat director of
policy for the 1992 election campaign. He was a trusted adviser to David
Steel during his time as party leader and today fulfils the same role
for Paddy Ashdown.
He juggles a heavyweight job at mining conglomerate RTZ with the role of
Lib Dem parliamentary spokesman on Northern Ireland and - crucially as
polling day nears - chairmanship of the party’s election campaign.
In order to accommodate his busy schedule he is a notoriously early
riser, conducting meetings at times when other businessmen are still in
True to form, my meeting with Holme takes place at 8am in his office at
RTZ’s St James’s headquarters. Looking fit and younger than his 60 years
after an early morning swim, he outlines his approach to impending
’The basis on which we’ll fight the election is that we’ll make a
I’m quite critical of Labour in that they’ve gone in for synchronised
swimming with the Conservatives. I want the whole campaign to be
strategy-led so you can bring together the leadership, policies and
approach of the party so it’s indivisible - cut from one cloth.’
Holme can be tremendously charming, but at the same time has the
intellect and strength of will to prosper in the bearpit of British
politics. A word often used to describe him is Machiavellian.
’He’s got very talented at maintaining the ear of the leadership,
whoever’s in,’ says one Lib Dem. ’He’s a political warfare specialist,’
’He’s highly intelligent and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which means
he’s not as popular with some people as he might be,’ adds Steel. ’He
has made his share of enemies over time but I regard that to his
Those enemies have been quick to level charges at Holme. There have been
some rumblings of disquiet in the party over his prominent role at one
of the UK’s top plcs, which operates in the controversial business of
mining to boot. Some also blame him for convincing the party leadership
to concentrate too heavily (and arguably to its own disadvantage) on the
possibility of a hung parliament in the last election run-in.
One long-serving party activist also feels that Holme has ’cosied up’
too much to the Labour party and has made himself ’unanswerable’ to all
but a few Lib Dem grandees. ’Only a Conservative victory can stop
Richard being a powerful player in the land,’ says one Lib
Dem-supporting communications expert.
In the 1950s, before Oxford and a stintas a management trainee at
Unilever, Holme served as an officer with the Gurkha Rifles during the
Malayan Emergency - a military background which gives him a bond with
After forging a successful career for himself in publishing, both here
and in the US (where he was active in Democratic party circles), he set
up strategic consultancy PRIMA Europe in 1987, where he advised the
likes of Unilever, Glaxo and RTZ. When two years ago RTZ offered him a
job with a wide-ranging management and communications brief, he leapt at
the chance to return to corporate corridors.
He is a respected campaigner and this, with his ease at the heart of
large organisations, made him Ashdown’s natural choice to head a
campaign involving 500 people with an estimated budget of #2.5
When asked, Holme lists self-discipline among his own qualities. ’Once
you are clear what the message is, don’t be deflected,’ he says.
Clearly this is of extreme importance for a party which doesn’t have the
large advertising budgets of its two bigger rivals.
Holme was a prime architect of the Liberal-SDP alliance and has been at
the heart of party policy for over two decades. No one expects his
influence to diminish for some time to come. He is, after all, an
energetic, modern Machiavelli.
Management trainee, Unilever
Marketing director, Penguin Books
President, CRM Inc, California
Chairman, New Perspectives Publishing
Chairman, Prima Europe
Director external affairs and human resources, RTZ