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Great time at Grassington but things could get sticky for Clegg

Posted on 16 June 2010 | 1:06pm

Had a very nice evening at the Grassington Festival. Lovely little place, home of the legendary Calendar Girls, and surrounded by some of the most fabulous scenery on earth.

For a small place, they put on a terrific festival of arts and music. Good crowd last night, market forces failed in that the organisers sold out of Prelude to Power (good sign I guess) and after my opening spiel we had a very enjoyable Q and A mixing heavy and light.

Now I think for people to shell out hard-earned cash to hear me speak, they are likely to be interested in politics and current affairs. And they were. As is often the case at these festivals, the audience was predominantly white, middle class, middle aged, though with a few younger types scattered around.

But it is always good to get a feel for what they know and don’t know, and how differently things can feel outside the Westminster and media bubble.

Someone asked me whether I was secretly flattered by the idea that Malcolm Tucker was based on me. I asked the audience if they all knew who Malcolm Tucker was. A gentle ‘no’ murmur could be heard. I asked for those who had never heard of the fictional star of The Thick of It to raise their hands. I reckon between a fifth and a quarter went up. If you add in a few for people who don’t like to admit ignorance to anything, or don’t like being asked to raise their hands by some bloke on the stage, that means a fair proportion of educated, informed, middle class opinion had no idea who he was.

It allowed me to explain in the context of my favourite examples of swearing – for another day.

Then someone asked what I had said to wind up Adam Boulton (a subject I have been asked about by someone every day since he lost it live on air). Yet although there was quite a loud chuckle throughout the hall, I also sensed a fair few people not getting the joke. So I asked if they knew what the question referred to. Again, quite a few ‘Nos’. I asked for a hands up if people had heard of Adam Boulton. Well over half. Then hands up if they had heard of him before our spat. A lot fewer. Yet in Westminsterland it is hard to imagine anyone doesn’t know who he is.

I was told to let the Q and A run as long as I liked and it was well past ten by the time we were done. The questions ranged far and wide – bigotgate, TV debates, what will GB do next, Labour leadership election, TB and charisma, spin, truth, not doing God, mental illness, religion, Iraq, Ireland, how to sell cuts, BP, Burnley, Murdoch, Peter Mandelson, Scots in politics, bonus culture, we must have got through a few dozen, including who was the best PM we never had from the last 30 years. I put that to the audience too and from a choice of Healey, Ken Clarke, Heseltine and John Smith, John won by a landslide.

The ‘hands up’ exercise did confirm that we can now safely say that Nick Clegg  is a household name – no hands went up when I asked if anyone had not heard of him.

I also sensed he is quite close to being a potential figure of fun. Are the satirists on the case?

The media is still doing the honeymoon bit, but the feeling is out there that the Lib Dems are being used pretty ruthlessly by the Tories and that a lot of what Lib Dem voters (there were plenty of them) voted for is not what the MPs they sought to elect are now promoting.

At these kind of events I give out prizes for the best questions as a way of encouraging people to ask questions I am unlikely to have been asked before.

In third place – have you ever accidentally left on a microphone and what did you say?

In second place – what will you say about Grassington in your diary tonight? (I can definitely say I have never been asked that before)

But the winner of a signed Prelude to Power came from a lady named Lindz who asked ‘which was the greatest act of betrayal – Owen Coyle’s or Nick Clegg’s?’

By then I was well into the ‘hands up if you have never heard of’ routine. Given we were not that far from Burnley, Owen Coyle may be a little hurt to know that more hands went up than for Malcolm Tucker. Still, I guess for people to come out to hear me on a night Brazil are entering the World Cup suggests they were not massive football fans.

As for the answer, I went for Coyle in that his leaving Burnley was in some ways a bigger shock and affected me more personally at the time. But the mood of the audience, if I read it right, seemed to think Clegg won the betrayal game by a mile. And once the cuts really bite, and his MPs are voting for legislation they used to campaign against, and people tire of the ‘everything’s Labour’s fault’ line of defence, I think things could get sticky for Nicky.

Anyway, thanks to all who organised and all who came, and good luck for the rest of the Festival.


*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.

*** Buy The Blair Years and raise cash for Labour



  • Ant Heald

    You’ve made me feel a bit homesick, having long since left the Pennines for the flatlands of southern Yorkshire. It’s hard to believe that Kelbrook, where I went to primary school, Skipton, where my dad was editor of the local paper, Grassington and the Dales (where there are plenty of Clarets) and Doncaster (where there aren’t) are all in the same West Riding.

    Still getting over Coyle: know what you mean about the ‘personal’ effect. I’m still waiting for the change of government to really make a difference to me. But it will 🙁

  • Ollie

    What was the answer to the microphone question??

  • olli issakainen

    Ludwig Beck once said to Hitler who was intent on war that when you take the first step, you must also be aware of what the last step will be. Had he only listened!
    Power-hungry (the Lib Dems were in government last time during the steamship period) Nick Clegg agreed to a deal with the Tories without much thinking of the consequences. He acted like a gonzo journalist who jumps into the deepest whirls of reality without a life belt.
    Will Nick Clegg annihilate his own party in the process? The support for the Lib Dems is down to 18% in the polls. 20% of the people who voted for them last time may not do so next time. And many supporters are wary of the coalition.
    What will happen after the cuts?

  • garyenefer

    It looked like Adam Boulton had had a few?

  • garyenefer

    Yes,Nick Clegg sounds terribly vague and naive. I am sure he is going to irritate David Cameron soon and then there will be DC and his advisors gossiping about NC.

  • Alice Fairley

    You’re right about Clegg already becoming a figure of fun. It is such a mistake for him to keep turning up at PMQs and PM Statements and sitting next to Cameron like a dumb accessory, nodding away like a plastic dog in the rear car window. It gives the perception (rightly) of a desperate wannabee with too much time on his hands.

  • Alex

    Clegg as afigure of fun…..

    I like to cast prominet people in BBC costume/comedy dramas.

    Cameron is the slightly dodgy C-of-E vicar, doesn’t really believe in god and might have his hand in the collection box.

    Clegg is the comedy snobby neighbour who thinks he is a cut above and is always falling in the manure heap.

  • Krystyna

    A friend of mine, who is politically neutral, works in the House of Commons. He happened to mention that he rarely sees David Cameron these days and neither does he see George Osborne much. The other senior Tories are now in their new ministries so they are not around much either. My friend still sees as much of Nick Clegg as before…says it all really.

  • garyenefer

    Dear Alice Fairley

    Very good. Can we follow each other on Twitter please?I am
    MYOGA or Gary Enefer. I kindof link between Twitter,Alatair/s twitter and blog as a hobbie.
    Its up to you but I like your style……………..
    Come on England

  • dalesbred

    Ollie, in true Alastair C style…. he did not answer the question, instead he skirted around the subject and started talking about Brown, to change the focus. I think the ‘pompess’ comment made to Boulton would be up there. As for another question skirted around; how many Jilly Cooper novels have you read, as they obviously influence your writing style… answer – “the first one is not really like that, you must not have read it properly.” In my honest account, i have never read the words ‘stonking **** & pert breasts.’ in any other than Cooper or Campbell(Maya)

  • Lindz

    First time I’ve been called a lady in a very long time!

    Many thanks for the book, and for the very interesting Q&A. I really liked your quick list of final questions at the end – I will steal that unscrupulously on the occasions when I do similar events.

    Your handling of the WI members was particularly expert!

    I also appreciated your honesty about your mental health and your drinking – especially as someone who has also been on locked wards and had to give up alcohol. I think we find it hard to accept the plurality of people – and your openness about those issues is important. I imagine as many of the audience had their personal prejudices as their political ones challenged last night.

    Good stuff.

  • Graham Jones

    George Osbourne will break up the FSA, who failed to predict the financial crisis, and hand over the powers to the Bank of England, (who, er…..failed to predict the financial crisis),.
    The truth is that criminals are criminals, and they will always find a way to break the law. It doesn’t matter if they are loan-sharks or high-flying executives, they will find a loophole.
    Osbourne will have to take the blame if we go into a double-dip recession, just as he should be more magnanimous, and concede that Labour left the British economy in a sustainable recovery, and with a credible and fully funded programme for deficit reduction; his own independent review on the economy says so.
    While he may be sitting in Mansion House thinking he’s arrived, he has a long way to go before he will reach the heights of Gordon Brown, or Alistair Darling.
    It’s frightening to think what state this country would be in, had Osbourne been Chancellor at the time of the financial crisis. The world would have perished, with every country retreating into protectionism, culminating in a greater depression, than that of the 1930’s.
    It would be easy to say ‘let them make a mess and we’ll kick them out next time, but it’s us, the public, that will suffer under his economic avalanche, and left to clear up the damage. He still has a chance to show he can be sensible, when he unveils his emergency budget – but I won’t be holding my breath.

    P.S. Great to see the Labour candidates on TV last night on Newsnight. Let’s hope we see more throughout the contest. Maybe not Sky, in case Boulton loses it again.

  • mdavid

    I think nick clegg’s time is marked by deputy in waiting william vage and why are there so many failed tory leaders in the cabinet ?

  • Laura C

    Ollie – he said he couldn’t remember ever having left a microphone switched on. Great evening.

  • Robert Crosby

    You’re spot on about Nick Clegg, Alastair. I was surprised that more of those who did know who he was didn’t tire of his superficial posturing and synthetic anger at PMQs before the election. I’m gutted that Labour is the Opposition for now and I’m not against doing deals with decent Liberals such as David Steel, but I’m really glad that we are not tied in with Clegg and the self-serving ‘Orange Bookers’. I hope this shabby coalition will be the beginning of the end for them.

  • Helen

    Really enjoyed the evening at Grassington. Exceedingly entertaining. Have never seen anybody so unfazed by difficult questions. A great story teller.

    Didnt know who to invite to come with me as so many people profess to dislike AC. Now Ive told everybody how entertaining he is everybody says that they would have loved to have gone if Id asked them Perhaps you have more fans than you think.

  • Theresa

    I think Nick Begg will morph beautifully into the Tory party. He’s loving every minute of the cuts = pain show.

    I expect the LD who don’t have a cabinet position to break away within 2 years, but Begg and Alexander will become fully fledged Nasties when the rest jump ship.