The poor old LibDems suffered from two rather embarrassing email incidents during their conference. The first was when a press officer sent their entire “Lines to Take” to the media instead of their MPs. MPs and ministers were given a checklist of five things to mention in every radio. “We are a party in confident mood” and “We are the only party which can bring about a strong economt and a fair society” were two of the less memorable mantras the politicos were supposed to spin to a supplicant media. Oh dear. I decided to get this out of the way early in my interview with the chirpy Tim Farron by just asking if he agreed with all of them. The second disaster to strike the LibDem press office was when an inexperienced press officer copied and pasted the wrong bit of a document into a press release, thereby setting a hare running that the LibDems regarded anyone earning more than £50,000 a year as wealthy, and that they would face big tax rises if the LibDems had their way. Cue media hysteria and another story which had to be extinguished as quickly as possible.
There are a couple of explanations for these cock-ups by the LibDem media team. Firstly, apart from the West Ham-supporting Head of Media Phil Reilly (naturally one of the good guys) not a single LibDem press officer has been working for the party for more than eight months. But I wonder if tiredness could be the issue. The entire LibDem front bench and team of special advisers were booked into rooms on the 15th floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Glasgow, but it appears they didn’t get much sleep. The exertions of a bonking couple in one of the rooms kept the entire floor awake for most of Monday night. They were apparently “at it” for several hours, and the identity of the couple caused much speculation the next morning. Your humble servant was lucky enough to be present (while waiting to interview the Cleggmeister) when a rather ashen-faced young man emerged from the room looking somewhat dishevelled. Discretion prevents me from identifying the poor bugger. But he did have a smile on his face. I’m afraid I ducked out of asking the Deputy Prime Minister whether he got a full eight hours. Of sleep, that is.
“Disgraceful.” “I’ve been totally misrepresented,” spluttered a clearly rather angry Paddy Ashdown about an Observer piece last Sunday. So it was with a degree of incredulity that while I was waiting to interview Nick Clegg I spied Ashdown emerging from a lift with The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley. Furthermore, the two of them were laughing and joking as they disappeared into Ashdown’s room. He’s clearly a forgiving sort. Half an hour earlier, I had been told he wasn’t doing any more media interviews. Rawnsley’s charms were clearly more alluring than my own!
Wandering around the appallingly depressing conference centre in Glasgow, it seemed I was the most popular man in the building. One after another journalists came up to me, slapped me on the shoulder and engaged me in conversation. But after the initial pleasantries, it became clear they had only one thing on their minds. “So, Iain, the Damian McBride book…. What’s in it, then?” They must think I was born yesterday. Luckily, I was able to tell them that I genuinely didn’t know when the newspaper serialisation of the book was commencing. I’m pretty sure they all thought I was spinning them a line, but I wasn’t. They won’t have long to wait. Have you bought your Daily Mail today?
The LibDem big idea on free school meals isn’t the vote-winner Nick Clegg thinks it is. When we covered it on my radio show, virtually everyone who got in touch with the programme was against it on the basis that we haven’t got the money, many councils do it already, or isn’t that what Child Benefit is supposed to be used for. There are some red faces among Southwark LibDems who, when it was proposed by the ruling Labour group, spoke out against it. I’m sure they now think it is an even better idea than putting 5p on plastic bags, an idea David Laws assures me is the most popular policy the LibDems have put forward since, er, the abolition of tuition fees. OK, I made that last bit up, but he insists people love the idea. I’m not so sure.
One man who is spitting tacks about the school dinners idea is George Osborne. Why? Because the Tories had to accept it as a trade-off to get through the marriage tax allowance. I’m told George Osborne is not exactly a fan of this policy, which is as dear to the authoritarian right as mother’s milk. I have never understood why. Being in favour of marriage is surely like being in favour of motherhood and apple pie. We all are, but should it be rewarded by a £3 a week tax break, especially in difficult economic times? I think not. I’m just waiting for which dumbass Tory right winger will table an amendment saying that people in civil partnerships shouldn’t get it as they’re not really married.
Next year’s LibDem conference will also be in Glasgow, which fills most of us with complete dread. I’ve got nothing against Glasgow. In fact I quite like it, but the conference centre is just awful. A modern architectural monstrosity which has all the atmosphere of a morgue. Yes, cue the easy joke about the LibDems being in their death throes, but it’s not easy to comprehend why they want to come back so quickly. Apparently they were supposed to be in Liverpool, but once Alex Salmond set September 18 2014 as the date for the Scottish referendum, they decided they had to avoid a clash. As a consequence, for the first time, the LibDem conference will take place after the Tories. But will that mean that Parliament returns a week later than normal? I suspect so. I wonder if Nick Clegg cleared that with Mr Speaker.
One of the LibDem talking points at their conference was the fact that Norman Lamb, the North Norfolk MP, is sporting a smart new haircut. Gone is the gelled flicked up hair at the front. Instead it’s all now slicked back. “Is this the start of a leadership bid?” wondered some commentators. The truth is a little more prosaic. I am given to understand that Norman’s usual hairdresser has returned to Lithuania, so his wife decided to attend to the Lamb thatch. A lesson for us all.
I have a column in the gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, and in this month’s issue I have written a light piece about why gay people have the reputation for liking a certain type of music. I’m sure Tory MP Nick de Bois will be hugely impressed that he gets an honourable mention. But I won’t spoil his fun by revealing the context. He will have to buy a copy! Or more likely get one of his staff to!