In a way it doesn’t bode well for the security of the new Coalition Government. Yesterday I found myself in Downing Street filming a piece-to-camera for the STV programme “Politics Now”. Hearing that the first joint David Cameron/Nick Clegg press conference was about to begin in the Rose Garden to the rear of Number 10, I decided to chance my luck and join the throng of Lobby journalists queuing up to attend.
“Do you have a Lobby pass?” asked a Number 10 press officer. “Erm, no, I don’t,” I replied, hastily adding that I’d just called the press office and that they’d assured me it would be fine. “Wait over there,” was my curt instruction. “Are you with the foreign media?” asked another functionary. “No,” I replied (“not yet” I added, inwardly). Eventually, as it became clear Dave and Nick were about to appear, I was ushered into the Garden as another official cried: “No more! No more!”
The setting was vaguely familiar, no doubt from half-remembered 1995 images of John Major’s famous “back me or sack me” press conference, which also took place in the Rose Garden. Indeed, The Times journalist Peter Riddell later told me that Sir John’s bold move sprang immediately to mind as he watched the new Prime Minister and his Deputy. Only in England could a patch of land devoted to flowering shrubs bear witness to such political turning points.
And what a double act they proved to be. Strolling, almost nonchalantly, up to their respective podiums, the chemistry was obvious from their body language. The similarity of their backgrounds has attracted much comment, but it is a valid observation: they had the aura of two public schoolboys – reunited after a decade or so – finding that they still had much in common. Clegg could never have gelled with Gordon Brown; the outgoing Prime Minister simply wasn’t cut from the same cloth.
The Prime Minister’s language was clear, concise, and subtly evangelical. “We’re not just announcing a new Government and new ministers,” he declared, “we’re announcing a new politics.” It could so easily have sounded insincere, but somehow Cameron pulled it off. “It can be an historic and seismic shift in our political landscape.” Every word became loaded. When the PM referred to “our Liberal-Conservative Government”, it was hardly an accident that “Liberal” had taken precedence over “Conservative”.
Then it was over to Nick. “We are different parties and have different ideas,” he protested, clearly trying to pre-empt mischievous questions from the assembled hacks. “There will be bumps and scrapes along the way.” Indeed there will, but watching the pair of them it was difficult to foresee any tension between leader and deputy. Between and within their respective parties perhaps, but surely not between Dave and Nick?
One journalist wasn’t going to let them off so easily, reminding Cameron that he’d once replied “Nick Clegg” when asked to tell his favourite joke. The PM fielded this well, pointing out that everyone would have previous utterances thrown back at them, but Clegg seemed surprised. “Did you say that?” he asked; “I’m afraid I did,” replied Cameron bashfully. “Right, I’m off,” indicated Clegg, as if making to leave. “Come back!” quipped DC. Again, it could have been cheesy and contrived. Somehow it wasn’t.
It was easy to get swept up in all of this, and I found myself grinning involuntarily as I hovered behind the big beasts of the press pack, who were (quite rightly) more cynical than I was. Yet the double act was a convincing performance if this was, as Labour claimed, “a deal with the devil”, nothing more than a shoddy compromise borne of political necessity. If it is that, then it seems clear that the two parties’ respective leaders (at least) are prepared to give it their best shot.
Then they were off, walking in that same nonchalant manner back into Number 10, departing just before a few raindrops emanated from an overcast sky which, had it broken sooner, would have rained on the new Coalition’s parade and provided the media with a rather ominous metaphor for their evening reports. It could be the first of many lucky escapes for a fascinating new experiment, and an equally fascinating partnership, in British politics.