The latest gossipy nonsense published by the Sunday Mirror reporting comments that Nick Clegg made in a conversation with Danny Alexander on the flight to Inverness that were overheard by a journalist are no more than the trivia of political backstabbing. They can - of themselves- be safely ignored, however embarrassing they may be. However, as with the unfortunate interview where Nick gave a -no doubt truthful- account of his sexual experience, and his rather weird comments recently about what his family are doing to face the credit crunch (not much), the fact is that he has again been rather too loose-lipped in public.
Although I do not know Nick Clegg personally, I have known several past leaders of the Liberal Democrats quite closely: Charles Kennedy is a long time family friend for example, and as a former Scottish activist, I have also been on friendly terms with Ming (and Elspeth) Campbell. Paddy Ashdown remains a personal hero of mine. I am very well aware of the problems, both personal and political, that the leader of the Liberal Democrats has to endure- and am very sympathetic to the enormous difficulties that are imposed on our leadership.
At the beginning of the leadership election I took the view that Nick Clegg was an intelligent and rounded political figure- and I still think that he is. The only real concern that I had was that his life has been lived too much in politics. In short, he seemed to be part of the professional political class that has arisen in Britain over the past twenty years. Once there was a large number of MPs who had direct experience of business, either as executives or as trade unionists. These days, the number of MPs with such experience is dramatically lower: few of the leading members of the Cabinet or the Conservative front bench has spent very much time away from politics, and where they have they have tended to come either from legal backgrounds or from the public sector. As the leadership election went on I, and many other members of my party, grew increasingly impressed with Chris Huhne: a man who had built a multi million Pound business as well a having been an award winning economic journalist.
In the end, as we know, despite having entered the race as comfortable front runner, Nick Clegg barely scraped home as the leader of the Liberal Democrats. As leader he has the mandate to shape the party in the way that he seems fit. I have been very happy to support Nick in his difficult role. However, the fact is that in the face of an arrogant Labour government and and inept Conservative opposition, it is pretty disappointing to see the long run of opinion polls that show the Liberal Democrats falling back from the level of support that we gained in 2005. While the distortions of our electoral system and our own tenacious campaigning mean that it is by no means certain that we would suffer an overwhelming setback at the next election, the fact is that we should be talking about advancing, not fearing retreat.
It is now not about policies. Over the past few years, the Liberal Democrats have crafted a raft of thoughtful, costed and effective measures into an integrated political programme. I am delighted to see many measures that I personally support being adopted by the genuinely Liberal leadership in our party. The tax debate that I would like to see has not yet happened, but I am probably more at one with the policy positions of the party than I have ever been.
It is not about talent. Such figures as Vince Cable, David Laws, Ed Davey, Chris Huhne, Steve Webb, Susan Kramer would be senior ministerial material in any party. The experience of Charles Kennedy, Ming Campbell, Malcolm Bruce, Alan Beith and many members of the Lords gives a real pool of wisdom from which the leadership and the party can draw.
Over many years, one problem that the Liberal Democrat leadership tends to have is that they- and I mean all of the leaders- tend to take advice from a very narrow circle. Furthermore, this circle tends to exclude all but a very few Parliamentary colleagues. The Leader's office- like the Party headquarters in Cowley St., is staffed mostly by activists. It is very easy for the office to retreat and become a "bunker". Certainly, the increasing isolation of Charles in the later part of his leadership was not only a desire by those around him to protect him- it also suited the narrow circle around him to limit access to the leader.
Sure enough, it seems that our new leader is not reaching out to Parliamentary colleagues either. If he had, then he would know that, however laudable it may be for a man to spend time with his family, the Liberal Democrat leader must, like his MPs - many from the most distant constituencies of the kingdom- sometimes sacrifice his family time. Refusing to give up a working day a week with his family under any circumstance annoys such MPs several of whom also have young families, which they can not see in the week no matter what. Likewise talking about his rather privileged family circumstances as though this was normal for most people in the country gives a bad impression.
Restricting his advisers to those of like age and background will also limit his appeal to the country as a whole.
Nick Clegg is being painted by the media as a Cameron lite. To beat this, He must now reach out to his colleagues and to the party. He needs to engage with both and not -as some previous leaders have done- regard them as more of a liability than an asset.
His private office needs a significant shake up- it gives the impression of an arrogant and out of touch leader, rather than a listening and engaged figure.
We have a rich and talented party, both in Parliament and across the country, which should be used better. With Ros Scott, the newly elected Party president, Nick has an opportunity to exploit these reserves of experience across the party.
All he has to do is ask.