Saturday, June 24, 2006

Take your hands off our Ming

Worrying news in the Daily Telegraph: the Liberal Democrats have called in outside experts to relaunch Sir Menzies Campbell. Among them is Gavin Grant, the European public affairs manager at the leading PR firm Burson-Marsteller.

The paper reports:
A Liberal Democrat MP said: "During our conference, Gavin [Grant] went up to see the leader in his hotel room, where he was preparing for a speech, and found him with a plate of fish and chips on his lap watching Strictly Come Dancing. That is the side people never see.
The trouble with this is that it cannot be true, though it is hard to tell whether the inaccuracy originates with the journalist, the unnamed MP or Gavin Grant.

For Iain Dale has gone to the lengths of examining the TV schedules during the Lib Dem Spring Conference this year and finds that Strictly Come Dancing was not being shown - and nor was Strictly Dance Fever. Nor can imagine Elspeth taking kindly to fish and chips in their hotel room although, with a PhD in Coronation Street, she clearly has a taste for demotic television.

Gavin Grant is also a name that will make some hackles rise: he was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the Alliance project back in the 1980s. It never seemed likely to me that standing down in the half the seats in the country was the way for the Liberal Party to march to power, but that is all ancient history now. Even so, I may dig some forgotten gems out of my Liberator archive one day.

I have also heard it suggested that Grant is not unconnected with the rather painful campaign to rehabilitate Mark Oaten through the media. The latest instalment is in today's Daily Mail - thanks to Paul Walter for the link.

There is a need to present Ming Campbell as a rounded character. He has plenty of hinterland - to use Denis Healey's word - and the public should know about it. The trouble is that fish and chips and Come Dancing is such a limited idea of ordinary life - something with which, in any case, people who hold important jobs in public relations generally have little connection.

It also plays to the prejudice that has cheapened public life in Britain: the idea that being educated or having a taste for the finer things in life makes you "posh" and is therefore a guilty secret that should be hidden away.

The campaign envisaged by the Telegraph is such a blatant piece of spin that I cannot see it working. The danger is that the Lib Dem are becoming image conscious just at the point that the public has learnt to see through all that and craves a little reality. At least David Cameron has been more subtle in the way he presents himself.

As I have said before - and shall no doubt say again - we should let Ming be Ming. Iain Dale puts it rather well:
The truth of the matter is that you can't make a silk purse out a sow's ear. They should play to Ming's strengths and not try to turn him into something he clearly isn't. It won't work and people will see through it.
Except that as some of the comments on his blog say, we are trying to make a sow's ear out of a silk purse.

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