Cablegate: Liberal Democrats Prepare for Conference, Look To

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P 241005Z AUG 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L LONDON 001942



E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/24/2019

Classified By: Political Counselor Robin Quinville reasons 1.4 (b/d).

1. (C/NF) Summary. The Liberal Democrats' new Chief Executive, Chris Fox, outlined August 18 for Poloff his strategy for taking the UK's third largest party through the next crucial year into the general election, which is due to take place sometime before June 2010. The Lib Dems plan to promote heavily leader Nick Clegg at the national level by championing their "principles for governing": creating a sustainable economy, building a fair society, and cleaning up politics. On the local level, individual MPs will take forward the party's central message of "giving power back to the people" by empowering local governments. Fox thought the public would focus on the National Health System (NHS) and Afghanistan through the end of the electoral period. Fox said the Lib Dems want to use the party's September convention to position itself between what it sees as a discredited Labour Government and a Conservative opposition Party for which it sees little public appetite. Fox, generally touted to be a rising Lib Dem star, brings with him private sector experience and may inject some much needed professionalism into a party that has been derided in the past for its amateur operation. End summary.

Filling Labour's Gaps ---------------------

2. (C/NF) During an August 18 meeting, the new Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats Party, Chris Fox, dismissed the Lib Dems' lack-luster performance during the June local and European elections as "derailed by the expenses scandal." He quickly noted that the party had gained ground in Northern England, adding that the Lib Dems would focus electoral resources there in the run-up to the general elections (which must be held before June 2010). Noting the Lib Dems had won control of local councils in the North and Northeast of England that had been Labour strangleholds for years, Fox said the traditional Labour vote in those areas is collapsing. Yet there is "no real appetite for the Conservatives." The Lib Dems, he projected, will fill the gaps left when disenchanted Labour supporters look elsewhere. Funding, however, will be a problem, and he questioned whether the Lib Dems would have the funds to fight the Conservatives.

1996, Again -----------

3. (C/NF) Fox likened the political cycle now to 1996. Then, as now, the general election was less than a year away. The electorate was fed up with the Conservative Government, which they wanted to replace with Labour under Tony Blair's leadership. Fox said the big difference this time is that he does not detect any appetite for David Cameron's Conservative Party. Voters are not "convinced by the Conservatives." Fox said the Lib Dems can fill the void and argued that, with the party running in second place in many seats, the party is well placed to win districts off both its opponents. He conceded the expenses scandal hadn't helped public perception of politicians, even though the Liberal Democrats had come out relatively unscathed.

The Electoral Strategy ----------------------

4. (C/NF) The Lib Dem electoral strategy is twofold: a ground war and an air war. The ground war will concentrate on getting the Lib Dem message out locally; the air war will focus its national campaign on its leader, Nick Clegg, and the Party's well-respected shadow Chancellor, Vince Cable. The strategy is to build on the high profile campaigning already done by Clegg on some hot-button issues: right of the Gurkhas to settle in the UK; opposition to Trident Nuclear Submarines, and questioning of operations in Afghanistan. The Lib Dems plan to promote leader Nick Clegg at the national level by championing their "principles for governing": creating a sustainable economy, building a fair society, and cleaning up politics. On the local level, individual MPs will take forward the party's central message of "giving power back to the people" by empowering local governments. Fox, as Head of Communications, said he will be watching out for campaign opportunities to insert Clegg into the public debate. Regarding foreign policy, Fox said he expected Afghanistan to remain at the top of the public's agenda, with growing uncertainty in the public eye about where that campaign is going as the number of casualties increases. The public is also focused on the treatment of soldiers on their return: pay, conditions, housing, medical care. Elsewhere, Fox said Pakistan remained the big unknown.

5. (C/NF) Fox expects the general election to be dominated by the National Health Service (NHS). The furious debate over the UK's health system -- thrown up by the debate in the U.S. -- plays to Labour's strengths, and allows them to portray the Conservatives as the party that wants to dismantle the NHS. The current row presents Labour with a perfect dividing line, but Fox doubted whether Labour could keep the argument running much longer before the public sees through it.

Focus on Conference -------------------

6. (C/NF) The Lib Dems head to Bournemouth for their yearly annual conference September 20-23. Fox described the purpose of the conference as a chance for the Lib Dems to position themselves as a party ready to lead, rather than just a party seeking a place in Parliament by doubling its number of MPs, which was the previous aim.

Comment -------

7. (C/NF) Chris Fox recently took over as the Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrat Party. Fox, already pointed out to us as "someone to watch," comes direct from the engineering firm Smiths Group, where he headed up the firm's PR operations; prior to that he was Director of Corporate Relations at Tate and Lyle Group. Fox replaces Lord Chris Rennard, the party's sure-footed head of campaigns who had to stand aside for "personal reasons" after his expenses came under the spotlight during the recent UK political scandal. Visit London's Classified Website: XXXXXXXXXXXX

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