It is now almost a week since Steelgate. In that time, the Lib Dem blogosphere has been obsessed with the topic of Trident.
It was a bad political miscalculation of Chris Huhne’s to make such a big deal of it over the weekend. Almost certainly, his intention was to make the announcement before his manifesto launch so that it wouldn’t overshadow his manifesto. Well, it has.
People can agree or disagree with his stance: I certainly think that Clegg has now made a creditable rebuttal. But if this election ends up being remembered as the Trident election, the party is going to end up looking bloody stupid.
I know it is impossible to ask people to stop thinking about bright purple gorillas with yellow polkadots, and almost certainly just as futile to suggest that people might want to discuss something other than Trident for a bit, but please try.
Chris Huhne clearly believes the Trident issue is key to his success and yesterday I was sent an email from Duncan Brack, Chair of the Federal Conference Committee, endorsing him specifically for this reason. They may well be right and they are certainly right that our current policy of sitting squarely on the fence in the hope that we never have to make a difficult decision is unsustainable. I certainly don’t share Linda Jack’s cynicism – if you are a senior cabinet member you must choose your battles carefully, especially when you have a vulnerable leader and rivals who are alert to any sign of disloyalty (if it is such a major issue of conscience, Linda, why didn’t you resign from the FPC? And why are you backing Clegg?).
Good internal politics it may be, but is it good external politics? There are certainly people out there who feel strongly about nuclear disarmament, but they are relatively few in number. For all my criticisms of Clegg for demanding the party move out of its comfort zone and reaching out beyond our supporter base and then not doing so, I agree with the sentiment. Kickstarting a debate about Trident doesn’t do either, although it does at least address one of my major concerns which is that our policy ceases to face both ways.
It is good that Huhne is looking for dividing lines, just as he did in 2006; apart from anything else it will make the contest more interesting in what was looking increasingly likely to turn into a snore-fest. But if the public perceive that the contest was fought on largely emic party obsessions and not on the issues that matter to them, whoever wins will struggle to hit the ground running in December. He should turn to bread and butter issues as we get closer to the day when the ballot papers are sent out.