Nick Clegg is chasing women

The Liberal Democrat leader wants to kickstart his party by emphasising its distinctive appeal and by targeting female voters. Matt Chorley outlines his strategy, while three commentators offer advice on how he might win them over

Nick Clegg gained a reputation for being something of a ladies' man when he suggested in an interview with Piers Morgan that he had "no more than 30" notches on his bedpost.

Now the Deputy Prime Minister is to embark on a campaign to woo female voters – and the Liberal Democrats have hired a new PR guru to help him.

Mr Clegg returns from holiday tonight but is leaving his children behind with relatives so he can embark on a breakneck tour of town hall Q&As and private meetings with party members "without having to rush home to put the kids to bed".

His team stresses that these are "party" events. Some colleagues fear he has disappeared inside his Cabinet Office bunker, and become a kind of ventriloquist's dummy who does little more than smirk ambiguously next to David Cameron during Prime Minister's Questions.

So he will strike out as Liberal Democrat leader – determined to be different. In the first sign of the fightback, Mr Clegg will tomorrow use a speech to debunk the suggestion that women are getting a raw deal from the coalition. Critics of the Government's record have plenty of ammunition, from accelerating the rise in women's retirement age to match men's, to cuts in child benefit.

In response, Mr Clegg will highlight the £625m pupil premium, extending free childcare to disadvantaged two-year-olds, and the rise in the income tax threshold to £10,000 – which means most part-time workers will not pay any tax – as policies that address women's concerns.

The relaunch is serious. Collette Dunkley, a PR guru specialising in targeting women, has been hired as marketing director to spearhead a research project into potential Lib Dem support at the next election. While party strategists are at pains to insist that they want to appeal to men and women equally, Ms Dunkley has a reputation for adding "particular value to organisations that want to increase their female appeal or market share".

"Collette could not have arrived soon enough," a party source said. Her firm, X&Y Communications, has advised companies such as Coutts, More Th>* and Lego, and she launched Chix and Mortar, a series of DIY courses aimed at women, with Big Brother winner Craig Phillips.

Ideas already being floated for the Lib Dems include embracing Twitter, more interviews in glossy magazines, and using the party's distinctive yellow more prominently, as research suggests it makes adverts more memorable. Ms Dunkley's imprint will be seen on the party's conference in Birmingham next month, when "differentiation" will be the (not very catchy) buzzword. Tim Farron, the party president, will set out the need for an "independent, distinctive voice" for the Lib Dems, while Norman Lamb will launch Facing the Future, a paper on how the party must generate distinct policies by the next election, particularly on tax, education and health.

Behind the scenes, David Laws – one of the party's best pointy-heads – is involved in policy work, regularly producing detailed memos for Mr Clegg on the "path to 2015". One source said the former Treasury minister's insights were invaluable to a party "lacking heavyweight thinking".

Aides believe the phone-hacking scandal – and exposure of Labour and Tory entanglement in Rupert Murdoch's web – has reminded voters that the Lib Dems are different to the two main parties, a sentiment that fuelled the surge in support at the height of "Cleggmania" last spring.

Senior party figures insist that the differentiation strategy cannot be allowed to descend into point-scoring with the Tories. "We don't want to be accused of fighting like rats in a sack."

The main battles so far have been the NHS reforms, to which the Lib Dems demanded important changes, and Europe, on which the two parties will never agree. Despite concern about weak growth in the economy, there will be no deviation on the central fiscal strategy of eradicating the structural deficit over this Parliament. Other areas of difference will be agreed in advance with the Tories.

But the conference will be used to re-emphasise the Lib Dems' radical roots. Last week it emerged the party will demand the setting up of an expert panel to consider the decriminalisation of personal drug use.

One motion, seen by The IoS, will demand the Government end the ban on gay men giving blood. Under current rules, men who have had sex with men (MSM) are banned from donating blood for life. And women who have sex with people classified as MSM are banned for 12 months. Lifting the ban could allow up to two million more people to become donors.

A separate motion will demand tougher action to tackle violence against women. "Bluntly, these are issues which Lib Dems care strongly about and should be shouting from the rooftops," said one MP.

There will also be a session on the NHS reforms, and Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, will never be far from the podium. From condemning the "male and pale" coalition negotiating teams, to taking aim at airbrushed advertisements, she has made it her business to ensure a female voice is heard in Whitehall.

Mr Clegg had better be listening.

Glossy magazines

Be authentic and real, not patronising – and not available to women's magazines only when there is an election. And women are not going to vote for you just because you watch Downton Abbey. While some of us may love shoes, that doesn't mean we're not concerned about the rate of recovery, the eurozone or the appalling lack of social mobility. Nick Clegg really appealed to women in the TV debates because he looked like someone who could say the unsayable and tell the truth, but he has since come across as weak. The time is moving on from funny ties and PR spin – he needs to look like he has gravitas.

Jane Bruton, Editor of Grazia

Big Brother

Big Brother would be an excellent way to gain exposure if deep down he is a man of impeccably good habits and manners. If he sniffs his socks to see if they are suitable for reuse or unthinkingly cuts his toenails in the front room, woe betide him. The idea that the "real you" is delightful in every way is a delusion. If you are meant to be statesmanlike, and then dress as a Jelly Tot, what then? Do I think it would rebrand him and market him more to women? Only if he has got the most magnificent six pack and a pierced nipple.

Vanessa Feltz, Broadcaster and housemate in first Celebrity Big Brother

Fashion

Do as Madonna does and anticipate every trend before it happens – for her, it was cowgirl and manga, but Clegg could look to the future of the eurozone for inspiration: Grecian classicism and Spanish modernism are set to be big. Political dressing should never boil down to a semaphoric code: a yellow tie won't convince us that Clegg is any more liberal than he is democratic. And besides, it makes him look wan. What Clegg needs is something that comes naturally to French politicians: a well-cut suit, in a serious and severe colour, narrow and straight-looking. Or perhaps he should invest in loungewear – after the next election, he'll probably be spending more time on the sofa than the front bench.

Harriet Walker, Independent on Sunday fashion writer

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