Secret Lib Dem “Operation Detach” is a council of despair

by Tom Watson

David Laws is keeping himself useful by masterminding the Lib Dems’ 2015 general election campaign. Every month, he meets Nick Clegg to discuss the latest market research and share results of message-testing. Back in the summer, they jokingly called the meetings “Operation Detach”. The phrase has stuck and is used by special advisers to impress their friends that they are in the know.

“Operation Detach” is about the Lib Dems trying to carve out a distinct identity in time for 2015. Back in the balmy days of the coalition’s summer, “Detach” meetings were jovial, good natured and full of enthusiasm. But it’s been the longest winter for Nick Clegg. Laws is apparently toning down the results of the research, so as not to further depress his leader. These days, Clegg’s responses are monosyllabic as Laws delivers him the not-as-bleak-as-he-knows news.

Laws’ research confirms what the whole nation thinks: the Liberal Democrats have been brutalised by the Conservatives inside the government. The internal polls show Lib Dem supporters in despair as they complain that Nick Clegg has lain down and been trampled by the Tories.

Gone are the days when the prime minister was known as “David” in these meetings. In their council of despair, the PM is now merely “Cameron”.  If Laws were writing another book (I’m told he keeps a memoir) he would be chronicling how they think they’ve been “shafted by Cameron”.

So, in the spirit of Dan Hodges, who portentously (though, in his case, wrongly) crowed about the victor in Labour’s leadership election, let me say that the Liberal Democrats will not win the Oldham by-election next week.

The Tories might, though.

They were around 2000 down in May and I don’t perceive that their support has fallen by a great deal. Remember, this is one of the few parts of the country where a sizeable group of people define themselves as “Liberal”.  From the times I’ve been on the doorstep in Oldham (it’s not often), it is these “Liberals” who most feel the betrayal. They’re turning on Clegg. Many will stay at home. Some will vote Labour. A smaller group will go Tory.

A Tory win is the only thing that all three party leaders don’t want. It would be comical if the consequences weren’t so serious. If we lose (and if we don’t turn out our natural supporters on a cold day in January, we will), Ed Miliband will be in the firing line of the anonymous (though we all know who they are) briefers near to the shadow cabinet.

Yet defeat causes greater problems for the government. The Lib Dems need this seat to remain credible. If their coalition partners win, it will be a catastrophe for Clegg and, therefore, an irritation for Cameron.

So, assuming that the Lib Dems are not going to win, it is in Clegg’s interest for Labour to retain the seat. If the Tories win, it begins to suggest that the only “detachment” strategy that will work for the Lib Dems in 2015 is to remove Nick Clegg as leader. No one ever said that politics wasn’t a perverse endeavour.

“Operation Detach” has not managed to find that unique selling proposition (USP) for the Lib Dems from within a Conservative government. But if they’re having problems getting a message across with all the machinery of government behind them, think how hard it is in opposition.

How does Labour apply our social democratic values in the age of austerity? This is the central challenge that faces our shadow cabinet over the next few years. Douglas Alexander tried to make this point in his comment is free article on Sunday.

“Moral outrage is a laudable response to manifest unfairness, but it’s an inadequate electoral strategy”, he says. He’s right of course. Yet, as far as I can see, nobody is actually saying that we need four years of outrage before we obtain electoral nirvana. Taken literally, Douglas’s words are vacuous. But he’s a smart man – the hyperbole is more than that. It’s clever politician’s code. What Douglas is really saying is that he doesn’t think we’re doing enough, quickly enough, to sketch out a distinct new identity for Labour.

Douglas is also right that we have to be economically credible. Being fiscally disciplined is imperative. Yet it sometimes seems that some of his colleagues around the top table have taken this mantra to its logical conclusion – inertia.

The PLP is still split between those who think we live in an instinctively conservative country that elects Labour governments only when Tory incompetence becomes unbearable. And those who think that Britain is a progressive nation which has been let down by the “progressive schism” at the turn of the last century. The genius of Tony Blair was his ability to hold both of the above views simultaneously. If there is a Blairite legacy that should be observed, it is this one.

We have plenty of time to develop our distinct USP. For me, it’s based around themes like collaboration, transparency, empowerment and other similar concepts that keep a fabian awake at night. I have absolute faith in Ed Miliband to embody a new politics with a cogent, realistic plan for our country after Osborne and Cameron have done their worst.

But even if Ed were some kind of prophet, it would not be enough for some of his detractors. And even if he’d drafted a new manifesto over the Christmas holidays, it would be a futile endeavour. Why? Because people are not listening to us. They’re not yet ready to hear our message of hope.

That is why Douglas is wrong to focus on calling for a greater clarity in policy before we do the basics. It is a political imperative, indeed a constitutional duty, to hold the government to account. Holding them to account is not about “moral outrage”, it is about exposing incompetence, inconsistency, spin, lies, and absurd priorities.

There’s plenty to go on. Six months in and this government is creaking and leaking at the seams. For more on this, see an insightful article from the fabians about why we shouldn’t be “overestimating David Cameron”.

Before we earn the right to be heard as a government in waiting, we have to learn how to become an effective opposition. You’ve got to attack them, Douglas. Attack, attack, attack. Don’t stop. Don’t be timid. And don’t over-intellectualise the task in hand.

I want to see our own “Operation Detach”. Let us “detach” our shadow ministers from the comfort of Progress talkathons and get them building our campaigning base. I want to see shadow ministers with petitions on petrol station forecourts and at commuter stations where the season tickets have gone up more than 10 per cent. The defence team showed fiscal responsibility in supporting the scrapping of the £7billion search and rescue PFI but where was the adventurous “Save the Harrier” campaign on the back of it? Where’s the outrage that the so-called “impartial” office of budget responsibility miscalculates the welfare bill by £1.4 billion?

Some of our shadow team have pummeled the government in the run up to Christmas. John Healey wins first prize for this. He successfully exposed ideological zealotry and administrative incompetence at the department of health. Lives were put at risk because the government refused to spend money on a public advertising campaign for the flu vaccine.  Andy Burnham comes a close second by forcing the pipsqueak Gove into a U-turn on community sports.

Lansley and Gove are just two examples of ministers who have found the transition from opposition to government hard. There are others. And we have our shadow ministers who have found the reverse journey as difficult. They’ve got to shape up if we’re going to win the right to have our own political USP heard at the next election.

While Nick Clegg obsesses over “Operation Detach”, our frontbenchers must get stuck in to “operation opposition”. See you in Oldham?

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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11 Responses to “Secret Lib Dem “Operation Detach” is a council of despair”

  1. Simon Thompson says:

    I’m a rock solid Labour supporter and I don’t like what Michael Gove is doing one little bit, but I *hate* it when people mock his size and appearance – which is the inference of the word “pipsqueak”. It just looks like playground bullying.

  2. doreen ogden says:

    YES !

  3. Dan McCurry says:

    Attack, attack, attack. Too right.
    It seems as if opportunities to attack tend to pass us by without anyone really noticing. We’re not a fighting machine and it is about transformation from government to opposition and opposition is about becoming the government of the future. This is not done by passively sitting back and hoping it will happen.
    Attack, attack, attack!

  4. Emily Thornberry MP says:

    I’m coming up to Oldham at the weekend with a team of Islington’s finest Lib Dem slayers.

  5. Richard says:

    Council of despair or confederacy of dunces, take your pick.

  6. Dan says:

    “We have plenty of time to develop our distinct USP. For me, it’s based around themes like collaboration, transparency, empowerment and other similar concepts that keep a fabian awake at night…”

    In which case, the Labour Party can look forward to a string of defeats in by-elections and local elections throughout this parliament.

    Labour stands or falls on fairness and social justice – because it is easily translated into the very urgent and very real needs of working people. Jobs, houses, safety, an end to poverty, world-class and free public services.

    Try canvassing Labour communities based on collaboration and empowerment!

    The anger at the Tories and Liberals is there, it needs to be capitalised on. Labour needs to resurrect the long-forgotten idea that people’s lives may get easier, that the world may get better.

  7. Mark Riley says:

    nice rally to the troops – but Oldham East is completely meaningless – so much so its in a parallel universe –

  8. Anon E Mouse says:

    Tom Watson – Go on then: “Ed Miliband will be in the firing line of the anonymous (though we all know who they are) briefers near to the shadow cabinet.”

    Who are they?

  9. Mike Thomas says:


    You were actually doing really quite well right up until that point fattie….

  10. Editor says:

    @ Simon Thompson and Mike Thomas

    Michael Gove is not physically small.

    “Pipsqueak”, therefore, was not a term of personal abuse based on his body. Had it been, we would not have published it.

    It was a term of political abuse, based on Tom Watson’s perception of his weak character, lack of experience and lack of gravitas.

  11. Sunny H says:

    This is an absolute solid piece of analysis. I can’t disagree with one line of it, even though I don’t always share Mr Watson’s politics 😉

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