What was our press team thinking?

Vince Cable met with ALDE leaders yesterday
Yesterday afternoon the Lib Dem press team put out a statement making quite a claim.

The media release stated that "Liberal Prime Ministers from eight EU countries have publicly backed the Liberal Democrats' call for the British public to have a vote on the final Brexit deal."  

The statement the Prime Ministers supposedly signed reads: "We regret Brexit, but acknowledge the choice made by British voters for the UK Government to negotiate withdrawal. We further acknowledge and support the Liberal Democrats’ call for the British people to have the final say on the Brexit deal. All parties need to seek a broad deal accommodating both the position of the UK government and the principles on which the European Union is built.”

As you can imagine, the mainstream media picked up on this, because it was quite a statement on so many levels. Not only was it timed to coincide with the Prime Minister's meeting with EU leaders, it would have represented a historic departure from the usual practice of the leaders of sovereign nations not interfering in another state's constitutional or electoral affairs.

I read the statement with some surprise. Surely no Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) leader, let alone a Prime Minister, could sign up to such a statement - whatever they thought privately? To make the observation that Brexit is far from a done deal would be reasonable enough, but to go as far as offer explicit support for the policy of the Liberal Democrats (which is only one member of the wider Liberal ALDE family) would be a potentially very dangerous, not to mention unprecedented, step to take. 

I would have thought that anyone with any understanding of European politics would realise that the statement, as written, would prove impossible for any ALDE leader to sign. I was suspicious of the claim that any Prime Minister could have signed this, never mind eight of them. So what actually happened?

Vince Cable did meet with fellow ALDE leaders in Brussels, including the eight PMs, for a working lunch. It seems that conversations were had about Brexit, and that there was some broad agreement on various issues, as one might well expect from a gathering of Europe's Liberal leaders. While this was taking place, the party issued the media release making the extravagant claim.

Immediately following the meeting, the news media naturally wanted to know the detail of what had been agreed. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happy to put on record his view that, if Britain changed its position on leaving the EU, it would be highly welcomed by “almost everyone in the European Union. Of course, whether that happens is up to the UK itself and UK politicians, but I am very happy my friend Vince Cable and his party are very much pleading for a discussion with the UK to make that happen.” A supportive statement indeed, but a more cautious and measured approach that the one our party press team claimed had been agreed.

It got worse. Very soon it became apparent that, while productive conversations were had, nothing formal had been agreed. The ALDE group couldn't have been more frank: "No statement has been agreed upon or released". Ouch!

The end result is that several newspapers today are running headlines that, from a Liberal Democrat point of view, are quite damaging. The Guardian runs with "Lib Dems embarrassed as EU leaders deny Brexit statement", the Daily Mail has "Lib Dem leader Vince Cable humiliated over botched Brexit PR stunt", while the Scotsman takes the view "Vince Cable humiliated as EU leaders disown call for new Brexit vote". 

It's difficult to disagree with either of these headlines, but especially the Mail's. Someone clearly thought this stunt - which is what it was - would be a good idea. That person, or people, should have understood that Prime Ministers of fellow EU states were not remotely likely to make public statements amounting to interference in another country's constitutional affairs. To imagine any ALDE leader would do something so illiberal defies belief. As far as stunts go, this has to be one of the most amateurish and self-defeating I've seen for some time.

I do not know who was responsible for devising this bizarre stunt, but it seems hard to believe it would be someone actively involved in politics. Anyone with a modicum of understanding would appreciate that the pre-written statement could not be publicly agreed by ALDE leaders, whatever their private sympathies. They would also know what the inevitable media reaction would be.

This leads me to ask questions of our press team. Why did no-one, at any point, realise this was a foolish idea that would only leave us looking silly and dishonest? Why did no-one look at the statement and think, "they're never going to sign this"? Why would a media release of this kind be circulated without knowing whether a statement had actually been signed?

It is deeply illiberal to interfere in another state's constitutional and electoral matters and I would have expected the Liberal Democrats to appreciate this. I would also have expected a competent press team to have realised what the inevitable outcome would be, and warn against it. The headlines are as predictable as they were avoidable.

For many people, this simply confirms their view of our party as being dishonest. For me, it confirms my view that our communications unit is amateurish and incompetent. 

If anyone needed evidence of quite how incompetent it is, take a look at the party's website. In spite of ALDE's confirmation that nothing was agreed - and the embarrassing headlines in the national press - the dreadful media release is still there, as the main "news" story...


Unknown said…
I think you are maybe being a bit unfair about our comms team. They would not have put something out that they genuinely did not believe to be the case.

I think the problem has come from the ALDE end. I am furious that they have done us over. Why blame our people without the evidence that they are in fact to blame.
Andrew said…
Simple answer:

a) it should be patently obvious to anyone that any other European PM would have been unable to sign that statement, as written;
b) days after the media release was proved to have been incorrect (for whatever reason) it still remains on our website as a statement of "fact" - that is definitely within our media team's control.
c) I think the evidence points to us putting the ALDE leaders in a near impossible position. They are clearly privately supportive but do not wish to be bounced into signing public statements. If you have other evidence then please share it.
Andrew said…
I might also add that ALDE are also "our people", and I would ask the same question of you. Why blame them for "doing us over" when the evidence points to a different conclusion?