The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
A Major Error
by Peter

Someone with thirty quid to spare might like to tell me how this story ends:

"SOME time ago, John Major's government made an audacious approach to a prominent Liberal Democrat who looked and sounded like a Tory. Would he defect, if a Cabinet job was guaranteed?"
posted by Peter Pigeon @ 10:34 am  
  • At 11 January, 2006 11:22, Blogger dynamite said…

    SOME time ago, John Major's government made an audacious approach to a prominent Liberal Democrat who looked and sounded like a Tory. Would he defect, if a Cabinet job was guaranteed? Sir Menzies Campbell declined.

    Those in Westminster who hear this story react with incredulity. At the time, Paddy Ashdown was plotting to lead the Lib Dems into coalition with the Conservatives - could Sir Menzies really have been closer to the Tories? Suddenly, this question is of vital importance. If Sir Menzies is seen as a closet Tory by Lib Dem membership, he could lose the leadership election to Simon Hughes. If he wins, then a Lib Dem-Tory coalition UK government could be on the cards.

    The downfall of Charles Kennedy has been so dramatic that it's easy to lose track of where we are. It was not his drink problem that felled him: senior colleagues have known about that for years. He was toppled when David Cameron came along.

    In the last month, Mr Cameron has given the Lib Dems a lesson on how to attack Tony Blair from the left - with stunts from signing up Sir Bob Geldof to fitting a wind turbine on the roof of his west London house.

    What has terrified Lib Dems was not the issues he chose, but his decision to apply a left-wing analysis to them. He was not only stealing Lib Dem clothes, but walking a Lib Dem walk and speaking with a Lib Dem twang. This, said the Lib Dems to each other, is what their leader should be doing - if he ever showed up. Proof of his alcoholism was made available to ITV News, and Mr Kennedy rushed to get his confession in before its 6:30pm bulletin.

    His drinking need not have been a problem: Churchill showed it is possible to lead a nation while getting drunk regularly. Had Mr Kennedy dispatched his duties with Churchillian vigour and panache, his weakness might have been overlooked. But instead, his leadership of the party was marked by inaction, ridicule and long, unexplained absences. After capturing much ground for the Lib Dems at the election, he had left it wide open to the sudden attack from the Cameron Tories.

    If it makes Mr Kennedy feel any better, this was not deliberate. Mr Cameron simply intended to reposition his own party and prise Tony Blair away from Labour - he did not intend to end up with a ginger scalp. If anything, Mr Cameron seeks to befriend rather than slay Lib Dems. His task for the next few years is to persuade the party's 62 MPs that they could work together with the new, cuddly Tory party. This will be important, because it is highly unlikely that the Conservatives could govern by themselves at the next general election. Not because they won't get the votes, but because the first-past-the-post voting system is now skewed against the Tories.

    Under the new boundaries, Mr Cameron could win as much as 40 per cent of the vote next time, and Labour a paltry 31 per cent. But even then, the Tories would still finish ten seats short of a majority. They need a ten-point lead to win. That is the grim truth for Mr Cameron. He doesn't just have to squeeze past Gordon Brown to win the next general election - he needs a crushing victory. Simple electoral mechanics are to guide Britain into an era of minority government.

    All of this suggests that the winner of the forthcoming Lib Dem leadership election could play kingmaker - deciding which party to enter coalition with. And this is why the Cameron Conservatives have much incentive to be friends with the Lib Dems.

    THE coming Lib Dem leadership race may turn into a battle of real substance. While Labour is likely to lay on a "show" election, with a mad leftie pretending to challenge Gordon Brown, the Lib Dem election promises to put much more issues at stake - mainly because of the much-underestimated Simon Hughes. He is a superb campaigner, and the ease with which he beat the popular Lembit Opik in the party presidential race (with 71 per cent) shows his popularity among grassroot members. He is firmly to the party's left, having opposed the proposed coalition with Labour in 1997 because he considered Tony Blair too right-wing. As leader, he would move the party firmly to the left of Labour on an anti-war, tax-the-rich platform.

    In the other corner lies Mark Oaten, who declared his candidature yesterday, a classic small-state liberal and an author of the Orange Book - a publication featuring Lib Dem MPs with ideas arguably to the right of the Cameron Conservatives.

    It is hard to think of any policies which these two have in common. But this, so far, has been the measure of the Lib Dems - a party which has avoided coming to any decision about which side of the fence it stands on. Mr Hughes would jump to the left, and probably be cheered by the Lib Dem membership. Mr Oaten would step to the right, if he stood the slightest chance of success (which he doesn't). This allows Sir Menzies to point to a third way.

    Two wild cards may prevent Sir Menzies taking the throne. One is his role in the Kennedy coup de grĂ¢ce: did he initiate the whispering campaign that had such a spectacular denouement last week? This would go down badly with party members. The next is whether the Lib Dem members will, like the Major government, see a Tory lurking behind Sir Menzies's statesmanlike demeanour. He has spent eight years holding the foreign affairs brief: little is known about his domestic agenda.

    None of this will be welcomed by Gordon Brown. The Tory party is rejuvenating under Mr Cameron and the Lib Dems' leadership contest may wake them from hibernation. Should these two get together, Labour will have plenty to worry about.

  • At 11 January, 2006 11:46, Blogger Stephen Glenn said…

    I read that on the way in to work this morning.

    Stealing my thunder as a Scot there Peter.

  • At 11 January, 2006 12:05, Blogger Peter Pigeon said…

    Thanks, Dynamite.
    sorry, Stephen! Any news on the by-election btw?
    Perhaps someone should ask the candidates which policies they agree on?

  • At 11 January, 2006 13:02, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The comment about Simon & Mark not having any policies in common is utter nonsense. There are very few they'd disagree on, whereas on the vast raft of LD policies campaigned on at the last GE (and certainly the ones the public know about) they'd be entirely in agreement.

    Lazy journalism, as usual.

  • At 11 January, 2006 13:36, Blogger dynamite said…

    Just spotted...

    "Those in Westminster who hear this story react with incredulity. At the time, Paddy Ashdown was plotting to lead the Lib Dems into coalition with the Conservatives - could Sir Menzies really have been closer to the Tories?" I missing something or is their some lazy subbing going on here as well?

  • At 11 January, 2006 16:43, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "If Sir Menzies is seen as a closet Tory by Lib Dem membership, he could lose the leadership election to Simon Hughes."

    But he did turn Major down, didn't he? I don't see how Ming could be labeled as a Tory just because the Tories wanted him. Many Tories would like also to see for instance David Laws to defect to them, but David Laws begs to fidder. In his comment in Guardian,9236,1682286,00.html he wrote: "But I accept my responsibility to show that I and my Orange Book colleagues are as committed to social liberalism, or social justice, as they are. If I was not, I would be in the Conservative party or pursuing my own financial interests in the City - less bumpy career paths than being a Lib Dem MP."

    I don't believe that either Ming or Laws are closet-Tories, but you can't blaim Tories for trying, as they are desperate for power. It wasn't a long time ago when David Cameron invited Lib Dems en masse to the Conservative Party.

  • At 12 January, 2006 12:59, Blogger Tristan said…

    If any of the LibDem parliamentary party were closet tories, why bother being closet?

    I remember Ming talking on Desert Island Discs, he joined the Liberal Party because they were a Liberal Party. He's with the LibDems for the same reason.
    Infact, then he mentioned how often Labour party memebers would try getting him to join them. Perhaps he's a closet Labour supporter?

    Both parties would love people of this caliber in the party and not opposing them, it doesn't mean they're about to jump ship, indeed, they won't for the clear reason, neither of the other parties is a Liberal party.

  • At 14 January, 2006 23:40, Blogger Stephen Glenn said…

    News on by-election:

    Was in Dunfermline today. Rachel Squire was buried yesterday and Labour are putting out their usual obituary edition Rose for her. We were also putting out different literature in various parts of the constituency.

    No date set yet, although most people are expecting hte writ to be moved this week. 9 February would be during half term here so might be what Labour consider a plum time.

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