And so Saturday came to pass, and Ros and I drove down to Newbury, to participate in the Autumn Conference of South Central Region Liberal Democrats. The events of the previous forty-eight hours meant that we would both be working, and I debuted my new suit, in an attempt to look credible, given the likelihood that I would be in camera shot (look Mum, I’m on television!).
In my role as chair of the ‘not a hustings’, on arrival I was able to sit down with Ros to select the questions to be asked. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but with the media present, and the possibilities for controversy, the aim was to pick questions that:
1. reflected the interests of the audience
2. would provide a range of topics
3. avoided narrow areas of interest
I was slightly perplexed to note that some of the questions were of a nature likely to cause real embarrassment to both the candidates and the Party, and hope that they were written in the absence of an understanding that the media would be present. However, we ended up with five questions, which sought to elicit knowledge of their leadership style, their philosophical leanings, and their views on the environment, Europe and diversity.
2.40 p.m. came very quickly, and I was ushered into a packed hall to introduce the session and the first of the two ‘candidates’, Chris Huhne. I had planned to briefly explain the format of the session, tell a brief anecdote and move straight to a very short introduction of Chris. But where was Chris? Nowhere to be seen, so I had to fill the time with a brief Q & A about the European selections, the London leadership hustings and the Regional Executive elections, all the while wondering where Chris had got to. By the time ten minutes had passed, my repertoire of humorous one-liners was almost drained and I was relieved to see Chris striding towards the door to the hall. Anecdote and brief introduction delivered, I was able to take my seat and watch Chris perform.
And perform he did, with a speech laden with gravitas and policy direction. Now it may be that he was at a significant advantage, debuting the speech on home turf (he’d fought Reading East and Oxford West and Abingdon before winning a European Parliament seat for South East England – which includes all of South Central Region), but his reception was a genuinely warm one.
His speech done, I asked the questions in turn, giving him freedom to answer each before moving on to the next. He gave a series of solid answers, and engaged in some comfortable banter with some of the questioners, and received sustained applause from an enthusiastic audience.
Then came the handshake, a piece of media construct if ever I saw one, and the area in front of me suddenly became a blur of cameras, cameramen and journalists before Chris left, leaving the hall to Nick.
Nick’s speech wasn’t as polished, but made up for that with a sense of almost boyish enthusiasm (I can say that, he’s younger than I am) and a bit more obvious passion. He told stories from his constituency surgeries and talked of the need to talk to those beyond our core base of support, using language that they understand and empathise with.
Again, the questions drew out some good responses, although his answer to the diversity question drew an unexpected outbreak of laughter when he said that he had spoken to Jo Swinson on Thursday. It had to be explained to him that Chris had said exactly the same thing when answering the question, but he recovered his poise very quickly.
More applause, the event was over, and the hall emptied of members and the media to chew over what had happened.
So, what was the result? If I had to use a sporting metaphor, I would suggest that the plucky visitors came away from the home team’s fortress with a well-earned point from a score draw. If you’re looking for gravitas and grasp of policy, Chris probably came out on top. If you’re looking for personality and passion, Nick probably shaded it. If you’re asking me who would make the better leader of the Liberal Democrats, I’d say that I still need more information before I declare for one or the other.