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Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Who is to be master?

The infighting going on within the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party reminds me of this famous passage from Lewis Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass':

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "who is to be master. That is all."

The publication last month of the Orange Book brought to a head an ideological dispute over what is meant by the term 'Liberal'. But this is less an intellectual argument, more a battle for power. The combatants are chasing the ultimate prize, or so they believe.

Rivalries between Liberal Democrat MPs are becoming more bitter because of two articles of faith in the parliamentary party; (1) that Charles Kennedy will step down as party leader soon after the next general election, causing a leadership election; and (2) that the subsequent general election (2009 or thereabouts) will be the 'breakthrough' for the Liberal Democrats.

It doesn't matter whether either of these assumptions is actually true. What matters is that many MPs and their hangers-on believe it. They are convinced that Kennedy's successor as leader has a good chance of becoming prime minister. The conviction that so much is at stake explains not only the intense rivalry between the MPs but also why various hangers-on are making selfish calculations about whose coat tails they should hang on to. Yes folks, guess right and a life peerage could be yours.

But the two assumptions on which the MPs are basing their rivalry are flawed. My bet is that Kennedy will surprise everyone after next year's general election and decide to stay on as party leader. The party has 55 MPs and current
spread betting predicts between 70 and 75 seats at the next election. This is probably over-generous and a tally of 60 to 65 is more likely. Even so, such a result would enable Kennedy to emerge from the election campaign with some credit. Or, to put it another way, the only election result that could threaten Kennedy's leadership would be a net loss of seats.

Kennedy's leadership had been in a state of crisis since the infamous
Newsnight interview in July 2002, which first brought the drink allegations out into the open. A series of damaging press stories ensued (most of them the result of leaks by various Liberal Democrat MPs attempting to influence the outcome of an expected change of leadership). This culminated in the debacle this March, when Kennedy missed the budget debate. The party's spring conference in Southport was rife with rumours that Kennedy would be toppled in June, to be replaced by Menzies Campbell.

In the event, Kennedy heeded the dire warnings and sharpened up his act, and the threat of a coup receded. By September, some of the more excitable people in the party were even talking of him "playing a blinder", though everything is relative. Nowadays, such has the currency of leadership been debased that simply getting up in the morning and staying upright for the rest of the day is considered great statesmanship.

Despite this turnaround, it remains widely assumed in the party that Kennedy has had enough and will be glad to give up the leadership after next year's election. I wouldn't bet on it.

Kennedy's kitchen cabinet naturally has a vested interest in him remaining leader. His representative on earth, Lord (Tim) Razzall, has been publicly talking up Kennedy staying on till 2009 and becoming PM afterwards. Meanwhile, other leading figures in the party privately dread a Simon Hughes vs. Mark Oaten leadership contest and want to spin things out until either Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg (not yet MPs but both selected for safe seats) is ready.

If you fancy a flutter, you should get good odds on Charles Kennedy still being party leader for the election after next.

The other assumption (a 2009 breakthrough) is equally questionable. By then, the British political landscape is likely to have morphed out of all recognition. One way or another, the boil of Europe will finally have been burst, which will determine whether the Conservative Party is electable. If Bush is re-elected next month, 'Atlanticism' will be exposed as a busted flush; a serious rupture in relations between the EU and the USA is on the cards and NATO may not survive. The British housing bubble will burst soon and the huge mountain of consumer debt will eventually collapse, leading to a loss of consumer confidence and possibly a deep recession.

It's not just a question of bursts and busts. As Steve Richards observed in the
Independent (19 October), the main political fault lines in Britain, on defining issues such as public services and Europe, do not match the boundaries between the parties. If the right-wing cabal in the Liberal Democrats persists in its strategy of railroading the party into 'economic liberal' positions, it will cause a serious split and make any 'breakthrough' less likely.

Both Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy will fall off their perches in due course. But, in both cases, the manner and the timing of their demise will not be the way most people assume. Trying to guess the outcome of either eventuality is an amusing political parlour game but does not amount to a serious political strategy.

Surely the main problem is that "people dont think the Lib Dems can win". If people thought they had a genuine chance of winning (or even coming second), they might vote for them. Otherwise why would you bother?
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