Do the events of last March show the scale of the challenge?
The BBC story above is NOT from the current Lib Dem conference but from last March when coverage of Ming’s big speech went badly out of control. It wasn’t what was said that sparked it off but the way journalists had been briefed by a top party PR man.
The suggestion that the Lib Dems would do a deal with Labour but not the Tories if it controlled the balance of power broke a long-standing party policy of always showing equidistance between the two main parties. The coverage was appalling and shortly afterwards a member of the party’s head office staff moved on after being dumped on by just about everyone.
Yet the failure was not the individual’s but the whole of the Lib Dems press relations structure. That a senior person could act in the way he did without being aware of the sensitivities underlined a massive weakness that does not appear to have been corrected.
And the problem is that the Lib Dem PR chief is not senior enough. For, unlike Labour and the Tories, the Lib Dems don’t have an Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson figure who sits at the top table and is completely integrated into all the strategic thinking. You want someone who feels empowered to act independently but does so being fully aware of where the party is going.
But the PR chief needs more power than that. Like Coulson and Alastair Campbell there are times when the leader is being told what to do and when to do it. Getting covered is so often about seizing the moment and acting in an instant. If a big news story, say, like Northern Rock is developing you need to find a peg, a distinctive angle and to get it out fast. Speed kills and you can’t afford to wait about until things “get approved”.
This is even more vital for a third party because it’s so much harder for them to get a hearing above the noisy squabble between Labour and the Tories. The Lib Dem PR chief needs to be able, instinctively, to read the media narrative and have the authority and the creativity to exploit it.
My strong sense is that Ming and the party generally would not feel comfortable with assigning these functions to such a powerful figure. This is not the Lib Dem way of doing things. Fine! But don’t moan about the media ignoring you.
The second quarter of 2008 is now the 3/1 favourite for Ming’s departure on the Betfair betting market on when he will go. You can get 5.4/1 on a Q4 2007 departure.
If you want to bet on whether Ming will be at the helm at the general election try this interesting market where you bet on which of Cameron-Campbell and Brown will still be in post.
Coming up on PBC:
“How David Cameron could come to the aid of the Lib Dems”
“How Gord could derail a Tory revival”