Simon Hughes: Saint or winner?

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The Independent Online

"The higher the baboon goes up the tree, the more we see of his arse."

It's an unusual Simon Hughes quotation, but a genuine one, taken from an interview he gave a few years ago about his political and religious beliefs. He was talking, in case you were wondering, about leadership and the dilemma that if people put their trust in an individual, which in a mass communication age they will do increasingly, then there are all the dangers of the vulnerability of the individual.

"Vulnerability" is something that seems to crop up a lot when the leadership of the Liberal Democrats is discussed these days.

We've certainly seen a lot of Charles Kennedy's soul up that tree lately. So now the question the party seems to be facing is: would you rather have Charles Kennedy drunk than Simon Hughes sober?

Given his renunciation of the demon drink, it seems slightly unfair on Charles Kennedy to use this formulation, although some of his colleagues have cast sufficient scepticism on his determination to avoid booze that it oughtn't to be judged as being in too poor taste. At all events, that choice may well be the one that the 90,000 or so members of the Liberal Democrats may soon have to face.

In a constitutional curiosity, it is Simon Hughes, as the party's president, who will be charged with running the election, and seeing the party through the immediate crisis, although, no doubt, arrangements will be made if Mr Hughes himself does decide to stand for the leadership. With Mark Oaten and Sir Menzies Campbell having said they will not stand against Mr Kennedy, Mr Hughes is one of the few candidates to have any realistic chance of ousting him, should he make it as far as the contest.

If he can find the parliamentary backing to launch a campaign, his energy and popularity with the membership - he is with Mr Kennedy the only other Liberal Democrat most of them would have heard of - could just swing things his way. In the final round of counting in the 1999 leadership election, Mr Hughes won 43 per cent of the vote, after a characteristically slow start. Many think that had he campaigned more vigorously sooner in that summer, it would have been he and not Mr Kennedy who took over from Paddy Ashdown.

On paper at least, he doesn't need much of a swing to get the job he has clearly always wanted. He's been a Liberal all his life, having sent away for the party's manifesto for the 1966 election when he was 15 and agreeing heartily with the Grimond view of the world, and joined the party when he was 20. But if his party now took a chance on Simon Hughes, what would the Liberal Democrats be letting themselves and the country in for?

There is one vice that even Mr Hughes's best friends acknowledge: he suffers from an addiction to unpunctuality. In his diaries, Paddy Ashdown recounts his frustration. It's worth quoting at length because it sums up what so many think of Hughes.

"11 January 1992: At 7pm a meeting with key members of the general election team at my flat. Des Wilson [campaign co-ordinator], Matthew Taylor, David Belotti and myself sat twiddling our thumbs for about 25 minutes until Charles Kennedy turned up, and then had to wait a further half-hour for Simon, who, having specifically asked for the meeting at 7.00 because he had a constituency engagement at 8.00, arrived at 7.55 and stayed until 10.00. I was cross, but it's impossible to be too tough on him. He is so charmingly vague.

"We occupied much of the hour spent waiting for him telling Simon Hughes stories. Des told one about Simon's adoption meeting as a parliamentary candidate, at which he arrived so late and went on so long that his own mother got up to leave, saying she had a train to catch; followed by three Indians in the front row, who went to pray, apologising loudly; followed, progressively, by most of the rest of the audience. Des described the entire event as rather like a speech version of Haydn's Farewell Symphony."

With a tendency to be prolix (you don't want to be around when he says he wants to make "nine points" on London's transport problems), he can be plain dull. He can also, it has to be said, be an inspirational speaker. However, his more annoying habits, his ambition and a tendency to play for his own game rather than the team, have left Hughes with a problem: his fellow MPs don't like him that much.

In the 1999 contest, he could call on only two MPs (Steve Webb and Tom Brake) to place their names on his official campaign statement. The party rule change last year that required a candidate to have the support of 10 per cent of the parliamentary party was known internally as the "Simon Hughes amendment", because he might not get the seven signatures he'd need.

Some distrust Hughes's blend of Christianity and left-liberalism. His last leadership campaign was based squarely on an appeal to old-fashioned social justice, the legacy of Lloyd George and Beveridge and an explicit commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy to redistribute income to the poor.

It is that pitch that makes him so appealing to activists and that so alarms the "modernising tendency" of MPs, whose economic liberalism tends more to the free market than the activist state. These modernisers - Mark Oaten and David Laws the most prominent - want to reposition the party so that it can no longer be caricatured, if unfairly, as a do-gooding, soft-on-crime, Europe-right-wrong, tax-and-spend brigade of sandal-wearing bores. David Cameron, they fear, could easily portray Mr Hughes as "extremist" and peel off soft Tory/Lib Dem floating voters.

Simon Hughes, it is fair to say, is not the embodiment of the modernisers' aspirations for the Liberal Democrats. Or, as Hughes explains: "You have to add in the anger and determination of the gospel to deliver a much more radical agenda than some of my colleagues would prescribe." The irony is that in order to stop Hughes, the modernisers will have no alternative but to vote for Mr Kennedy - the leader they have no confidence in. So elections can be a healing process, after all.

Strangely, Hughes has in common with Tony Blair the training of a barrister (they were around the courts at the same time), strong religious belief and a faith in "communities". "Someone had said to me I ought to be a lawyer because I was talkative and argued a lot," Hughes has said.

Had he not become an MP, and had merrily contented himself with his career as a lawyer and trying to get on to Southwark Council, he might have become something of a personality in the Church of England. Just as Blair is satirised as a trendy vicar, so Hughes has been called a curate manqué. He was, briefly, a member of the Synod. Hughes describes his faith in terms of a "family streak of Welsh Presbyterianism and Puritanism."

"My parents were simple Christians; they didn't make any great song and dance about their faith. Neither had been to university. My dad worked as a brewer. He got up at four o'clock in the morning and did shifts. My mum was in the Samaritans and the Red Cross."

Even so, there's no doubt he's "born again". "It was in my bar finals year that I was prompted to say 'my commitment to Christ has to come first' and I have held to that, however weak or strong the flame has been ever since. It was a new sort of allegiance, I suppose. Suddenly your emotions change. Again, like a love affair, you don't retain the same level of excitement for the rest of your life, but you remember it, and it is the root of other things."

Which brings us to Mr Hughes's other love affairs, about which he has been reticent. He will be 55 next year, a good decade older than Charles Kennedy, but unlike Mr Kennedy, he is not married with a child. Should he decide to pursue his ambitions Mr Hughes can expect questions to be asked about his sex life, orientation and relationships. Such intrusion might be a factor in whether he runs for the leadership.

The party membership and the wider nation probably won't have much difficulty with Hughes's private life. Nor would they have a problem with his legendary appetite for hard work. I witnessed this for myself once some years ago when I worked as a researcher at the BBC. We were making a film about the Liberal Democrats. So I rang his researcher, who told me he'd be happy to take part just as soon as he'd finished his constituency surgery.

Hoping for an early wrap and an adjournment for dinner, I asked when would be convenient for us to pop round. "Just after midnight" was the answer. Touring round south London in the bright orange London cab he uses as personal transportation and mobile constituency office, he was terribly difficult to pin down as to where precisely he'd be. We used Liz Lynne instead.

This extraordinary dedication has protected him in what ought to be, and once was, the solid Labour seat of Southwark Bermondsey. This is the constituency Hughes famously won for the then Liberal-SDP Alliance in a 1983 by-election, a contest described by Gay News as "the dirtiest and most notorious by-election in British political history" because of the slurs on the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, now better known as the force behind gay rights group Outrage!. During the campaign, some male Liberal workers wore badges reading "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell" and anonymous leaflets were circulating which asked "which Queen do you support?".

Labour was in disarray. Hughes, a 500-1 outsider when the by-election was called, achieved a 50.9 per cent swing from Labour to the Liberals. Robin Oakley, the former political editor of the BBC, has called Hughes "the best canvasser I have ever seen". In Bermondsey, Simon Hughes is more of a brand than a mere MP, but his position has been slipping, and the majority is down to 5,406.

Hughes once said that people "need a framework which is socially coherent for them, which enables and validates and develops them as individuals to be themselves - and I hope then gives them the opportunity to open the door marked 'salvation on offer through faith'." But do the Lib Dems want to be saved by this charmingly vague man?

A Life in Brief

BORN: 17 May 1951.

FAMILY: Son of the late James Henry Annesley Hughes, brewer for Whitbread (died of cancer), and "Paddy" Silvia (Ward). His elder brother Richard died of malaria contracted in Kenya.

EDUCATION: Llandaff Cathedral School (head chorister); Christ College, Brecon (head boy); Selwyn College, Cambridge (college student union president); LLB, BA 1973.

CAREER: Called to the Bar 1974, practising from 1978. Also a spell as an EU trainee in Brussels 1976. MP for what is now North Southwark and Bermondsey since 1983. Various frontbench positions; candidate for London Mayor 1994; President of the Liberal Democrats.

HE SAYS: "We have to legislate for a fallen world."

THEY SAY: "They all adore Simon round here. He should be nationalised" - South London pensioner sometimes quoted in Hughes propaganda.

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