Chris Huhne: time to get serious

I really have veered a lot in my views in this leadership election. I’m not used to this phenomenon of genuinely not having made my mind up about something – it’s giddy stuff!

So it was that while my default position at the beginning of the campaign was that I’d be voting for Clegg, by the middle of last week I was more or less in the Huhne camp. But now I’m starting to move back to the centre again.

The reason is this row about school vouchers. First of all, as I’ve already said, I simply don’t accept the arguments put forward in Chris Huhne’s manifesto that a voucher system would be bad in all cases. If he’d limited his argument to opposing health insurance, he’d have been on safer ground: his arguments about the inherent bureaucracy of such systems are stronger (in my view).

But secondly, that ought to all be irrelevant because if Chris Huhne is truly committed to local control then he ought to accept that different Liberal Democrat council groups might come to wildly varying conclusions based on their local circumstances. I can see, for example, how a school voucher system could work very well indeed in inner London. I’m not wedded to the idea but I can see none of the disadvantages that I would foresee if the same system were introduced in a rural area.

Thirdly, the implication that Nick Clegg has a secret agenda for introducing school vouchers simply doesn’t hold water for me. It appears to be based on a Rachel Sylvester interview in the Telegraph where the simplest, most Occam’s Razor proof explanation is that she simply chose what she wanted to hear. I’ve noticed that one of Clegg’s unique characteristics is that he manages to convince Tories that he is one of them. Last night on 18 Doughty Street Iain Dale and Timothy Barnes were both utterly convinced that Clegg was a conviction Tory, while seconds later being equally convinced that Clegg was about to uncritically support Labour’s “illiberal” proposed homophobic hatred legislation. It doesn’t appear to be rational, more a kind of Derren Brown style mind trick.

(Side point: Barnes and Dale were waxing lyrical about how the Tories were going to oppose this while the Lib Dems would support it. I would merely point you to when it was debated in the Commons last month. Nick Herbert essentially welcomed it notwithstanding concerns about free speech, but it was both Evan Harris and David Heath who dealt with the freedom of speech issue in depth. Lib Dems 1, Tories 0 – sorry chaps)

Back on topic, one of my biggest complaints about Nick Clegg is that he has been playing for safety and that it may cause him and the party trouble in the long run if he then decides to start proposing major changes after he gets elected. To be precise, he won’t be able to and will merely have lots of acrimonious rows that get nowhere if he tries. So I can hardly then worry about a secret plot of his to introduce school vouchers as policy by the back door when he has now stated for the record on several occasions.

And then there’s this article summarising a pamphlet by Direct Democracy about introducing school vouchers. What is significant about this pamphlet is that Direct Democracy are very much on the right of the Conservative Party and they don’t think the argument for school vouchers is winnable in the short term. If they think that, then why on earth would Nick Clegg be so foolhardy as to position himself to their right?

In short, the school vouchers debate is complete puff. I’m annoyed at Chris Huhne for making such an issue of it for what appears to be cheap political capital. And though it saddens me to admit it, I’ve seen him make too much cheap political capital in this campaign so far. The Trident debate went on for two long weeks and also alienated me. The constant references to “not being another Cameron” (which admittedly Clegg can’t entirely absolve himself of blame for) grate; why no attacks on Brown in this campaign?

It is one thing for Huhne to overreach himself occasionally, but it is beginning to look like design rather than accident. His challenge in this campaign as the underdog is to make the political weather. But too much of this comes across as too divisive, too cheap and generating far more heat than light.

Huhne’s manifesto pegged him out to be the strategist, yet he’s the one that has been fighting a tactical campaign. I may be desperately uninspired by Clegg’s campaign, but at least it has an internal logic to it. Being able to maintain a steady course under fire is not in itself a bad thing, even if it is unclear which direction you are going.

I still rate Huhne as the candidate best able to articulate what the Liberal Democrats are for. Clegg continues to fail to inspire me and has been oversold as the “great communicator”. But he is at least now starting to come up with messages of his own. Some I agree with. Some I think are utterly ridiculous. But he’s setting the agenda now. It’s time that Chris Huhne, who has a whole manifesto to keep relaunching bits of over the coming weeks, followed suit.


  1. Both the leadership contenders are starting to up their game a little, but unfortunately I still don’t think they have inspired the media or the public yet. None of their policy proposals thus far have offered anything wildly different from what has been proposed in the past (either by the Lib Dems or someone else).

    How do they turn this around? Surely a leadership contest is the perfect opportunity to get some airtime for who the Lib Dems are?

  2. The really really frustrating thing about the debate around education and health care reform is that more liberal ideas are thrown out as being ‘right wing’ or ‘american’.

    Huhne dismissed vouchers as being ‘US Style’, yet it is European countries which have led the way, Utah just voted against a voucher system…

    Vouchers are an attempt to have a more liberal system, they seek to break up the de-facto monopoly that the state has gained in education, something which was not intended by the original education acts. Local councils used to send children to private schools, originally elected local boards controlled the state sector and they didn’t necessarily supply all the schools.
    Vouchers are an attempt, in today’s centralised world, to get back some of that individual autonomy which was to an extent provided for.

    On health care, the debate is framed in such a way as to place the US system as the alternative. That is absolute rubbish. Even the opponents of universal health care in the US don’t argue for the current US system, they argue for massive reform.
    As to your comment on insurance – health insurance is a great thing, it means we don’t have to pay up front for those events insured against, currently the state provides it and the services (although not particularly well and with high levels of bureaucracy), it also lumps this in with health assurance. I think a good place to start would be to decouple these different aspects of health care (which is in part what some continental systems do).
    The big mistake of the NHS is to try and run everything. Localism won’t solve that problem either.

  3. I think that this is your best post on the leadership election so far. Now Nick has to step it up- we have his view on education, which is something that we should be really proud to sell at the doorstep, and some good stuff on internal reforms. Now for Health, a liberal foreign policy etc etc.

  4. Oh, and while I disagree with Huhne’s ‘vision’ of liberalism (I think that he confuses equality of opportunity with simply ‘equality’, as no one said that equality of opportunity stops after birth), I would like to see Nick do ‘the vision thing’ a bit more and communicate in one line what he thinks liberalism is for. Sometimes, I get the impression that he is simply better at discussing topics or themes, rather than saying where we are heading to.

  5. “I think that this is your best post on the leadership election so far.”

    Hmph. Only because I was critical of Chris Huhne. 🙂

  6. James, You misrepresent what I said. I made the point that Chris Huhne does not support the legislation at all. I have also written in the Telegraph about how I think the Tories should oppose it, but there are battles going on within the Shadow Cabinet about it.

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