For me, the most interesting thing about the Guardian’s exclusive today about Lib-Lab talks is that it is credited to an anonymous “staff writer.” Clearly whoever wrote it (Wintour? White? Mulholland?) considered it so explosive that they didn’t want to alienate their sources by being outed as the author.
The other interesting aspect is the non-denial denials. From Lord Kirkwood:
“We are getting this sort of speculation all the time from people who want to write stories about cooperation [between the parties] at levels which are in their imagination.
“But they [Mr Brown and Sir Menzies] talk all the time, they talk about Fife and other things. If you start getting into particular meetings it’s impossible. This suggestion is not known to me and not admitted. Some of these players do have to trust each other in relationships one-to-one.”
From Ming’s office:
“We are not commenting on this tittle-tattle or any other story based on rumour and speculation, now or in the future. We are an independent party which firmly disagrees with Labour and Gordon Brown on the issue of Iraq, civil liberties, including ID cards and 90-day detention, nuclear power and council tax to name but a few.”
What the latter source appears to not appreciate is that this tittle-tattle was nipped in the bud between 1999 and 2006; basically the inter-regnum period between Ashdown and Campbell. Kennedy had many faults, but he at least appreciated the danger of a third party getting distracted by this sort of endless speculation. By contrast, and in spite of his rhetoric, Campbell is developing a talent for getting dragged into this non-issue.
And of course Ashdown used to make a habit of dismissing this “tittle-tattle”. He used to enjoy denouncing anyone who claimed he had been having secret talks with Blair as fantasists and liars. I should know; back when I was the (elected) LDYS sabbatical, his office leant on the LDYS Chair to get me sacked. Then, months after stepping down as leader, he flogged his diaries to Rupert Murdoch for a six-figure sum in which he proudly boasted about the wool he had been pulling over our eyes.
As such, Liberal Democrats ought to be highly sceptical about statements that, once again, we should believe that there is smoke without fire, especially given how integral Campbell was last time around.
As for the substance of what is being suggested, it seems hard to understand what the Lib Dems’ role is here. Apparently “Mr Brown is thinking of launching an all-party initiative on the future of the British constitution, and it may be that he would like a senior Liberal Democrat involved on a specific basis. He may also make a move on Iraq that could require the help of other parties.” So why aren’t these talks happening with Cameron as well? Is this a return of the Joint Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform? Back then it turned out to be a complete waste of time; bipartisanship on constitutional reform in any case leaves almost as much a sour taste in the mouth as unipartisanship. Both models are concerned primarily about self-interest as opposed to the nation’s. The debate in democratic reform circles is currently coalescing around new models such as Citizens’ Assemblies: these ideas don’t require bipartisanship and have the advantage of being under the control of members of the public. The thought of Campbell and Brown stitching up the electoral system and other reforms together isn’t just undemocratic (and I can guarantee that we would never get PR for the Commons out of such a negotiation), but frankly a little old-fashioned.
The lesson that the Welsh Lib Dems have taught me over the past month is that we should never say never to the idea of coalition. We should have red lines. But Campbell’s infamous Harrogate speech earlier this year illustrated all too clearly that Labour is currently in breach of pretty much every red line we might care to come up with. So what is there to discuss? There is no halfway compromise between the Lib Dems’ position on civil liberties and Labour’s. It’s all or nothing. Sorry if I come over all tribalist here, but I don’t consider human rights negotiable in exchange for local fucking income tax (or even, dare I say it, LVT).
Instead of this distraction, Ming ought to be redoubling his efforts to give his own party better definition. Last week’s housing policy launch demonstrated that we still have much work to do on our presentation. Any negotiation now is from a position of weakness, not strength. I still believe the party can turn itself around in time for the next General Election, but not if Campbell keeps allowing this sort of speculation to break out.
UPDATE: The official Party line –
There is no prospect of any Liberal Democrat joining the Brown Government.
On so many issues, the Tories and Labour are part of a cosy consensus and Liberal Democrats are the real opposition.
Tories and Labour now agree on:
- tax breaks for the richest
- the Iraq War
- council tax
- nuclear power
- student tuition fees
The need for a strong independent Liberal Democrat party, to challenge the cosy consensus of Labour and Conservatives has never been stronger. We are committed to remain that strong and principled voice of opposition.
Sounds good to me. I would wryly observe that some of us have been pushing this ‘cosy consensus’ line for some time and have been rebuffed. Indeed, I recall Ming dismissing it during the leadership election Question Time last year when Chris Huhne mentioned it. C’est la vie.