The Lib Dem leadership campaign is starting to get spiky. Good, it’s past time for a bit of frankness. And while Nicholas Blincoe’s attack on Chris Huhne over on Comment is Free is ad hominem enough to make even me blush (making up a pretend speech impediment and then taking the piss out of it is in the gutter even by my standards), his criticisms of Chris Huhne’s stance on the environment aren’t a million miles from my own yesterday.
But he is wrong to complain of Huhne being schismatic. Or rather, he is wrong to express exaggerated concerns about Huhne causing a split in the party. The party’s attempts at looking every which way and being all things to all people have got us nowhere. The fact that one of Clegg’s key advisers is openly calling for as much soft soap in this contest as possible (while reserving the right to put the boot in himself) confirms my worst fears about the mushy, safe “liberal future” he appears to be promising. So much for moving out of our comfort zone.
Huhne’s manifesto contains two core elements that he should push home as much as possible over the next few weeks. The first is the People’s Veto – a brilliant populist move which happens to also be a democratic one. The second is his defence of equality. The latter guarantees that the likes of Andy Mayer and Tristan Mills won’t vote for him, but it marks him out as a centre left politician and contrasts with Clegg’s emphasis on meritocracy. It is an issue of principle that he can stand or fall on. For me – and others – it makes Clegg’s exhortation of liberalism sound hollow.
Both of these topics evoke visceral responses which is what we need in a contest like this. We have serious issues that need to be resolved. Saying we must never try resolving internal philosophical differences for fear of scaring the horses is lamentable. We will be stronger for having had a robust debate, not weaker.
Everything else in that manifesto should be junked, at least in terms of core messages. The rest of it either restates existing party policy or goes to a level of nuance that we really don’t need to be getting into. If he can’t pare it down then Blincoe will have a point: having lots of arguments on lots of topics will generate far more heat than light.
And Nick Clegg? He gets an easier task. To win my respect, all he has to come up with is one big, bold idea that it is possible to disagree with. At its heart, the fact that I haven’t heard him articulate one is what is most frustrating me about his campaign. People keep telling me he has one; that he has lots. David Boyle – someone I certainly do respect – has just joined the blogosphere and assures us that Nick has one. Everyone who knows him seems convinced that Nick has one. Yet no-one seems to want to say what it is.