Is coalition government the end of spin?

  • September 06, 2010 11:12
  • Katy Scholes

By Nicholas Jones

David Cameron’s relationship with the news media sparked a lively discussion between the blogger and broadcaster Iain Dale and Nicholas Jones, author of Campaign 2010: The Making of the Prime Minister, when they debated the issue at a meeting hosted by the National Union of Journalists.

‘Is coalition government the end of spin?’ was the question they had to address. Both agreed that effective political public relations was here to stay and they considered the successful presentation of the new government was due in large part to the way Conservative and Liberal Democrat spin doctors had put their political differences aside and had spent the first few months of the new administration working together.

Jones pointed to Cameron’s success in winning the backing of the Murdoch press and the all-important support of the Sun but Dale said the Prime Minister’s far greater achievement was to have won power without conceding too much to the agenda of either the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph newspaper groups, both of which had a fraught and fractious relationship with Cameron and his cabinet colleagues.

Dale said Andy Coulson, the Conservatives’ media chief who had become the new director of communications in Downing Street, had insisted from the start that Tory and Liberal Democrat spin doctors had to work together to limit the risk of counter briefings and talk of splits; Cameron had warned the coalition’s special advisers they would be sacked if they briefed journalists anonymously to attack each other.<!--more-->

‘Part of the remit of Labour’s special advisers was always to do the bidding of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson,’ said Dale. ‘And, I am a little sceptical as to whether the line drawn by Cameron and Coulson will hold and whether we will be saying the same thing in two years time.

‘Political journalists are behind the curve on understanding how the coalition is working. All political correspondents are looking for is splits and what they don’t get is that inter-personal relations between coalition ministers are good’.

Jones said it was the tribal loyalties of the Blairite and Brownite spin doctors which had proved such a divisive force for New Labour and it did seem, at least for the moment, that Cameron and Nick Clegg had broken the mould of political public relations.

But if there was any evidence that journalists were being fed with anonymous quotes attacking one side or the other it would be the first sign of a real fault line in the coalition and once a hostile briefing war began, Cameron and Clegg would soon find they were being threatened by instability from within as had been the case under both the Blair and Brown Premierships.

The debate was organised by the freelance and press and public relations branches of the NUJ (1.9.2010)

Campaign 2010 is available to buy from the Biteback website, priced £9.99.


The Harlow panel give their verdict

  • September 03, 2010 09:48
  • Katy Scholes

Deborah Mattinson, Britain's leading pollster and author of Talking to a Brick Wall, revisits the Harlow focus group for their verdict on the coalition government so far...

Talking to a Brick Wall tells the story of the New Labour years from the voters’ viewpoint.

Writing the final chapters during the 2010 election campaign, I set up a panel of swing voters in Harlow, Britain’s fifth most marginal seat. It was made up of people with consistent records of voting Labour (’97, ’01, even ’05) who were now undecided. They were the voters who would determine the election outcome. In the end, their own vote perfectly matched the result, with almost all switching to the Conservatives or Lib Dems.

My last panel session for Talking to a Brick Wall took place just after the Cameron/Clegg double act in the No. 10 Rose Garden. It received a warm reception:

Hopefully a fresh start for the whole country

In the last week of August I brought panel members together again to learn their verdict on the coalition so far. Had their expectations – so high in those honeymoon days – been met?<!--more-->

The focus group were impressed by the flurry of activity that had swept the nation since May. Yet, while some specifics (clampdown on benefit cheats, cutting civil service bureaucracy) were applauded, that early praise was muted.

Overall, it seemed that the coalition’s aim, beyond cutting the deficit, was unclear:

I’m confused about where this is all heading

You’d have thought all the cuts would give a clear direction but I’m just not sure

There was also an underlying anxiety, triggered by announcements about the VAT increase and ending the winter fuel allowance, that the coalition would not, as originally promised, look after ‘ordinary people’ and the less well off.

This was partly driven by perceptions of Cameron himself:

He looks like he’s enjoying this all a bit too much

He’s not in touch with ordinary people. He comes from a privileged background and doesn’t know what it’s like for ordinary people

And partly because the expected brake that the Lib Dem presence was expected to provide had not yet materialised:

Clegg has sold out

He’s a yes man – Cameron’s puppy dog

There were also worries about whether the economic strategy was the right one or whether it would provoke a ‘double dip’ recession. Concern was voiced about job losses and falling house prices.

We’re three months in – towards the end of the public opinion bounce that most new governments enjoy. All that hope is still relatively fresh in people’s minds, while Labour’s ability to provide effective opposition is clearly compromised by the leadership contest.

Right now, the Harlow panel jury is out, but they are already sending powerful warning signals that the government will ignore at its peril.

I shall be visiting Harlow regularly to monitor the voters’ verdict – watch this space.

Talking to a Brick Wall is available to buy from the Biteback website, priced £17.99


Brought to Book: David Torrance

  • September 02, 2010 11:12
  • Katy Scholes

This week author of Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy David Torrance gets Brought to Book.

What is your favourite book?
I’ve always been suspicious of people who point definitively to a favourite book (how can they be so sure?), but my favourite genre is certainly literary biography. Two, if I may, stand out: Nicholas Shakespeare’s near-perfect account of Bruce Chatwin’s eclectic career and Andrew Motion’s biography of Philip Larkin. Oddly enough, I don’t read much fiction or poetry but devour their official lives.

As a child, what was your favourite book?
The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford, which I bought second hand and read several times. No child with an imagination could fail to be charmed by the story and its gentle humour. <!--more-->

What book would you take on holiday this year?
I’m on holiday at the moment so have brought a stack of books. F. S. L. Lyons’ 1977 biography of Charles Stewart Parnell was superb and very pertinent (a politician brought down by a sexual scandal), while two books about North Korea – Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea were excellent primers for a fascinating week in the DPRK (the books, unlike me, weren’t allowed in).

Do you have a favourite political book/biography?
I still think Jonathan Aitken’s biography of Richard Nixon is one of the finest political books I’ve read, and all the more fascinating in that Aitken failed to learn lessons from his subject when it came to his own political career. The late Bernard Crick’s biography of George Orwell is also an intimidatingly good account of a hugely important figure and his contribution to the related arenas of politics and journalism.

Which book published in the last ten years do you think is the most significant?
Probably Never Had it So Good 1956-63: A History of Britain from Suez to the “Beatles” - Britain in the Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook. Published in 2005, this nudged narrative history in a new direction, combining high politics with everyday life to provide a compelling account of 1950s Britain. Sandbrook also wrote this when he was in his early 30s, which makes me more than a little jealous.

Which literary character would you most like to be and why?
Probably Richard Hannay from the novels of John Buchan. He was a bit of a cad, unlike me.

Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy is available to buy from the Biteback website.


Review: Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy

  • September 01, 2010 15:02
  • Katy Scholes

David Melding AM writes for

The Original Red Tory

MANY OF you will think that YMCA exclusively stands for the Young Men’s Christian Association and perhaps recall the Village People’s slightly outrageous hit. Long before the song, in the 1920s in fact, the acronym was used derisively to describe youthful liberal leaning Conservative MPs. Many so labelled – Harold MacMillan, Robert Boothby, Duff Cooper – became well known names; but that of their mentor did not.

Phillip Blond, author of the influential book Red Tory, has called Noel Skelton the “original Red Tory and one of the most important MPs and thinkers of his era”. I confess that Noel Skelton was unknown to me but this important political life has been resurrected by David Torrance in his latest book Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy (Biteback, £25). Torrance is the gifted young author of a series of books that have shed striking light on the Scottish Tory tradition.

Noel Skelton was the Scottish Tory MP who coined the phrase ‘property owning democracy’ in the inter-war years. Skelton believed that the challenge of socialism had to be met by an ambitious programme of Constructive Conservatism (the title of his most influential work) that offered people extensive co-partnership in industry, land reform, and a more direct democracy via the use of referendums. Skelton urged the Conservative Party to take advantage of the new opportunities opening up in the 1920s, surely the most fluid decade in British politics. When his near contemporaries, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan, and Alec Douglas Home secured the premiership, they adopted Skelton’s influential phrase but focussed narrowly on its implications for home ownership. Skelton himself had a far wider vision which might be best summarised as Conservative co-operatism. <!--more-->

Torrance has rescued a significant Tory thinker from the slow backwaters of history. The pace and dynamism of inter-war politics is adroitly drawn out and it invites comparisons with the post devolution challenges facing the Conservative Party today. The Tories, as Skelton saw, had to be a national party or be nothing. For Skelton, this meant developing a social and economic programme that could meet the challenge of socialism. In the 1920s, as now, the Conservative Party had a core vote that was larger than any other party but one that was smaller than the combined forces of radicalism. He realised that the Labour Party had a greater potential to attract uncommitted opinion because Tories were so aloof on social and economic issues.

The 1920s certainly echoes loudly in contemporary politics. To detoxify the brand, Conservatives in Scotland – led by Alec Dunglass (the future Alec Douglas Home) and supported by Skelton – considered dropping the very name ‘Conservative’. Meanwhile, the increasingly enfeebled Liberal Party was demanding a move to the Alternative Vote. Torrance brings these debates back to vivid life and his analysis of the Conservative Party’s then new obsession with the use of referendums as a means to counter the siren calls of socialism, is quite apposite.

Serendipity plays a huge part in political success. Worthy candidates are often frustrated and never win the lottery of selection, and those that secure election are constantly at the mercy of events, illness and premature death (whether literal or metaphorical). Skelton died relatively young at the age of 55. He can be compared to his friend Oliver Stanley in this respect. Both might have contended for the highest offices had Fortuna been kinder.

Torrance has given Skelton the posthumous recognition he deserves. As a reddish Conservative myself – perhaps seven parts High Tory, three parts Lloyd George Liberal – I greatly enjoyed this book. It is a timely reminder that unless the Conservative Party forges social and economic policies fit for the whole British nation, failure will be its inevitable reward.

Noel Skelton and the Property-Owning Democracy is available to buy from the Biteback website, priced £25.00


The battle of the Blair biographers

  • September 01, 2010 12:33
  • Katy Scholes

Everyone has something to say about Tony Blair, including Biteback author Francis Beckett, who got involved in a little spat with fellow Blair biographer John Rentoul this weekend.

Appearing on BBC One's Sunday Morning Live, Beckett took part in a little bit of unkind banter towards the former Prime Minister, with Rentoul telephoning the show to offer his opinion. The ensuing conversation led to Beckett blogging about Rentoul's attack on the BBC's use of language, stating "It was an utterly shameful episode, and it sends a shiver up my spine to hear a pro-Blair journalist appearing to renew the campaign of terror [against the BBC], almost a decade on." Rentoul responded with comment on the BBC's use of language, suggesting the corporation should "reserve the term war criminal for people such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein who committed war crimes or attempted genocide rather than Blair, who stood against them."

With a bit of confusion over who said what resolved, the spat concluded harmlessly enough, but with today's release of Blair's memoirs refuelling the fire one only has to observe the Twitterati to know that this won't be the last heated exchange of words.

Francis Beckett is the author of What did the baby boomers ever do for us? and his blog is available to read here.