I ought to like the Liberal Democrats. It's my moral duty. They believe in nice things like freedom and equality and bunny rabbits. They’d never go to war unnecessarily. Live and let live is their philosophy, and they would never resort to personal attacks in an election campaign. Among all the career politicians that inhabit Parliament they alone carry the torch for principle, for honesty and decency.
OK. Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but I’m being serious. For a Labour man there is a lot to recommend Liberalism. Our parties sprang from similar Victorian loins. The crusading Liberal government of 1906 owed its comfortable majority to Labour movement support. Today both parties are pro-European internationalists; we believe in action to tackle poverty and discrimination, and on matters constitutional we broadly share a commitment to democratic reform, with an elected second chamber and a written constitution.
And yet the things that divide us are heartfelt. Before 2010, Vince Cable might have advocated a virtually identical economic path out of debt and recession to that of Alistair Darling, but in the main the Liberal Democrats are economic liberals – and boy do some of their ministers enjoy preaching austerity.
I remember Ming Campbell going on Question Time and viciously attacking the very idea of the national minimum wage. It would put millions out of work, he thought. And Jeremy Browne, one of the more objectionably right-wing Liberal Democrat ministers, sneered at me in the library last week that every time he had “looked into socialism” he had found it wanting.
All of which has left a very sour taste in the mouth for many Labour members. We remember the piety with which Liberal Democrats espoused every unaffordable scheme in opposition, and feel scandalised when exactly the same air of sanctimony is adopted to preach the virtues of “tough decisions”. Somehow it feels as if they have gone from idealists to pragmatists without the necessary intervening period of penitential soul-searching. So when Steve Webb argues that God is a Liberal and Tim Farron proclaims his liberal credentials by tabling an Early Day Motion on LGBT rights in Russia even though he failed to support marriage equality here, the self-righteousness sticks in the craw.
But you know what? I want Labour to form a government again in 2015. We too shall have to do unpalatable, unpopular things and we too shall have to abandon piety.
Freemasonry of Commons persists
When the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was so drunk at the despatch box during the debate on the future of the House of Lords in 1909 that he could barely speak and had to be bundled out of the chamber, he got away with it because not a single MP breathed a word of it. Only Lloyd George and Churchill ever left a record of it. Only reading Hansard with hindsight can you tell what his opponent Balfour meant by Asquith’s “very strange performance”. But such was the wildebeest-style desire to protect one’s own from the prowling lions that the story never got out and Asquith survived another seven years as PM. Churchill called it the “persistent freemasonry of the Commons”.
I was struck, watching the Channel 4 Dispatches programme on Cyril Smith, the one-time Liberal MP for Rochdale who spent years abusing vulnerable young men in care, how long that freemasonry has lasted. Long after the years of deference to MPs had subsided, he was able to get away with destroying dozens of men’s lives with the connivance not just of his own party, but of political opponents too, as even Jack McCann, the Labour MP for Rochdale, seems to have leant on the CPS to prevent a prosecution. What was it? Squeamishness, embarrassment, a naïve refusal to see what was going on, the deliberate turning of a blind eye or a conspiracy? Rochdale’s new MP Simon Danczuk deserves praise for the relentless way he has eschewed such freemasonry.
Just the job for Nadine Dorries?
There is already much speculation about who will succeed Nigel Evans as Deputy Speaker. It has to be someone from the same side of the House as the Speaker (cue jokes about which side Bercow really comes from). That rules out Dame Sylvia Hermon. Charles Walker, the much-liked chairman of the Procedure Committee, has ruled himself out too, as he wants to drive through reform of Private Members Bills. I am sure the rumoured plot to bypass the rule that the whole House gets to vote by holding a Tory primary election and presenting just one Tory candidate will fail, as most Tories wouldn’t sign up to it.
So, who? Nadine Dorries, below, fancies her chances (and some ministers fancy the chance of shutting her up) and Brian Binley is getting Tom Watson’s support. But I’m backing the Tory I think will do the best job of chairing the House with calm independence, Eleanor Laing. Worryingly, Liam Fox agrees with me.
Tesco is not one to bear grudges
I’ve been trying to forget my contretemps with Tesco this summer. It wasn’t a pretty spectacle. An early draft of a speech on migrant workers got mangled and I ended up having to row back on what it seemed I was alleging about Tesco’s employment practices. I won’t bother you with the details.
Suffice it to say I’ve been presuming I’m not Tesco’s favourite politician. So when I got back from holiday I was surprised to see that Tesco had been trying to make a delivery to my home. What could it be? A horse’s head? It turned out I had won a £20 voucher, a strimmer and a barbecue at an LGBT fund-raising event – all courtesy of Tesco.