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London - Nick Clegg faces the embarrassment of being hauled in front of a British House of Commons committee to explain why taxpayers are paying his election strategist – former DA spindoctor and chief adviser to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille – a six-figure salary.
Ryan Coetzee’s £110 000 (around R1.8m) pay cheque is the highest of any of the deputy prime minister’s special advisers. His official title is head of strategy and he spends much of his time advising Clegg on how to boost the Liberal Democratics’ dismal poll ratings and refining their media messaging. But he is also a key player in the party’s general election strategy and the Lib Dems may be asked to explain his salary to the Commons public administration select committee.
Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative chairman of the committee, said: “There is absolutely no doubt that a party pollster or election strategist should be paid for by the party, as is the case with (Tory election guru) Lynton Crosby. If someone has been appointed as a Spad (special adviser) at taxpayers’ expense but is doing this work even on the side, during the working day, then my committee will have questions to ask about who approved this appointment and how it could possibly continue.”
David Cameron’s chief election co-ordinator is paid out of Tory party funds, while the Labour Party has to ask the unions to pay its hired guns.
Labour MP Sheila Gilmore said: “There are now very serious questions for Nick Clegg to answer over whether Mr Coetzee has been working on Lib Dem election strategy while being paid to perform official government duties.
“If the Lib Dems are using the public payroll to support their party political activity, this would be a breach of the rules and an abuse of public trust.
“The public will expect urgent reassurances that the important role played by special advisers isn’t being exploited by Lib Dems desperate to improve their woeful ratings.”
Some Lib Dem MPs believe Coetzee will soon have to be paid directly by the party, rather than from the public purse, before next year’s UK election.
Asked if that should happen now, Clegg said on Tuesday he could not see a problem with the arrangement.
“We’ve done it by the book and it’s not unusual for politicians in government to get support on what are the main concerns of the British public and how can we address them in government. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The spokesman did not say what sort of visa Coetzee had to enter the UK but insisted “he clearly has the right to work here – he is employed by the UK government”.
Coetzee is seen as being much more involved in election strategy than his predecessor, Richard Reeves, and has presented his polling analysis to MPs and activists on Lib Dem “away days”.
Despite being popular with Lib Dem advisers and ministers, he has reaped criticism from some in the party. Lord Greaves, a Lib Dem peer, has said the party’s election strategy should “set out a programme for government based on what Liberal Democrats stand for – policies rooted in principles and Liberal ideology”.
He said many in the party would be pitted against “those who will follow the party’s newly risen saviour, ‘he who must be obeyed’ Ryan Coetzee”.
He said Coetzee’s ideas were devised “from his hundreds of spreadsheet pages purporting to tell us what our target 20 percent of the electorate think about everything from the immigration of Bulgarians to funding for tiddlywinks tournaments in Tooting”.