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Brighton and Hove Liberal Democrats

Brighton & Hove AGM - Baroness Olly Grender's Talk

November 12, 2018 9:00 AM
By Caroline Brown

Olly Grender was Nick Clegg's deputy director of communications for a year during the coalition with the Conservatives. Before that, she headed up communications under Paddy Ashdown. Recalling her days round the Cabinet table, Olly singled out "the best Lib Dem member, Kenneth Clarke, who was amazing and a joy to behold", while, for all his faults, David Cameron was a good chairman. Her overriding
impression of working with the Tories was that they were inclined to fly by the seat of their pants.

Olly Grender

A bad moment for Olly at No. 10 was when a Tory special adviser took her to one side and tried to solicit her help in slowing down Lib Dem MP, Lynne Featherstone, who was driving through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2014. Olly speculated that negotiations over the EU (Withdrawal) Bill would probably go down to the wire and be signed off at the last possible minute. The PM would not be
able to get the resulting fudge through the House of Commons. Any hint of damage to Northern Ireland's membership of the UK will lose her the support of the DUP; any attempt to keep the UK in a customs union will enrage the Brexiteers; and the prospect of Canada +++ will provoke Remainers into outright opposition. Olly's conclusion was that the country "will end up in a place where we shall have to have a People's Vote." She added that the House of Lords "has such a massive majority against Brexit, we need not worry." One Conservative peeress holed up in the library until 1 am during a tense debate over the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, determined to stay the course until she could vote against the motion. "The Tories maintain that they will always win because they can stay up until the small hours after a lifetime of hunt balls."

Lib Dem peers are solidly anti-Brexit and "will go down fighting." Labour "are all over the place." There is a natural majority in Parliament that favours remaining in the EU but it all comes down to the meaningful vote in the House of Commons. "If you asked Theresa May what is really going on and she was standing here in front of you, she wouldn't know."

It was a "terrible tactical error" to set a deadline for leaving the EU. Nick Clegg apparently told David Cameron repeatedly that the more ground he yielded to the Brexiteers, the more they would demand. The Government's negotiation strategy is to assure the EU that they have only to change x or y a little bit and the Government will be able to bring along more supporters but the EU is perfectly well aware that
Theresa May is in no position to "bring along" her backbenchers.

Olly marched on 20th October and said, "Wasn't it fantastic! They can't ignore it." On reforming the Lib Dem party, Olly thought that a revolution had to come. The way in which British political parties operate was set up in Victorian times and has to change. The #MeToo movement, equality and gender issues had to be taken into account.

There is a danger of spreading oneself too thin in the House of Lords so Olly concentrates on artificial intelligence and housing. Some idea of how Brexit has diverted the time and energy of our politicians away from their real task of governing was expressed in Olly's throwaway remark that "80% of Lib Dem peers do Brexit all the time."

As an ex-employee of Shelter, Olly is passionate about housing and she has won three concessions from the Government on its housing bill. One-fifth of households rents and should have a fairer deal and fewer fees to pay. Once a year, Olly sleeps out on the street and she had recently done this along with Baroness Suttie, a tough Scot, who had snored happily through rain and cold.

Olly passed on the sad news that Paddy Ashdown was being operated on for cancer this week. She described him as "indefatigable" and repeated his comment on the Lib Dems that the country "will miss us when we're gone." Olly said that "a small bit of conscience isn't there any more."

Q & A session

Why do the Tories take all the credit for our policies?

Olly replied that people only recognised a policy when she had run a big campaign. We needed to talk more loudly. The Lib Dem HQ press team was excellent but found it very difficult to get air time in the media. The BBC was particularly hard on the Lib Dems, routinely comparing the party with either the SNP or Nigel Farage when it suited them to do so.

We should put in more Freedom of Information requests. That was how it had come to light that none of the Brexiteers had done anything to further trade links during the last two years.

Why was Vince Cable absent from the House of Commons for a crucial vote on Brexit?

Vince Cable was having dinner with Phil Collins, having been told by the party whip that there was no expectation of a vote that evening.

Was a People's Vote the right direction in which to go?

Olly said that society was very divided but this shouldn't stop us talking about what we believed in. The division was not being healed by anything that Theresa May was doing. "Will there be a disgruntled group of people after a second vote? Yes."

Asked which questions should be on the ballot paper, Olly's answer was that there ought to be three: (1) Do you accept the deal? (2) Do you reject the deal? (3) Do you want to remain in the EU?

Carrie (Hynds) drew attention to Pepe's summary of renters' rights on our website and asked for advice on getting press coverage.

Olly was delighted to see local interest in housing policy and gave tips on how to gain media attention.

Why are the Lib Dems failing to break through and will Nick Clegg's new job with Facebook reflect badly on us?
Olly reminded us that Nick Clegg was still young and he had been roundly rejected by the British electorate. "He will speak truth to power."