Have the Lib Dems left it too late to leave the chorus of reticence?

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It was 15 years ago when I first realised that politicians were determined to talk about what they rather than we wanted to talk about. I can remember the precise circumstances in which it struck me. It was at a Labour Party press conference during the Mid-Staffs by-election of 1990. The candidate was Ms Sylvia Heal, who was perhaps ungallantly described by Paddy Ashdown as a "Barbie doll". What he meant was that she was an identikit figure supplied by party headquarters. Certainly it was the party that was responsible for the way things went. Ms Heal had nothing to do with it.

It was 15 years ago when I first realised that politicians were determined to talk about what they rather than we wanted to talk about. I can remember the precise circumstances in which it struck me. It was at a Labour Party press conference during the Mid-Staffs by-election of 1990. The candidate was Ms Sylvia Heal, who was perhaps ungallantly described by Paddy Ashdown as a "Barbie doll". What he meant was that she was an identikit figure supplied by party headquarters. Certainly it was the party that was responsible for the way things went. Ms Heal had nothing to do with it.

"This morning," the apparatchik announced, "we're going to talk about Health."

"Oh no we're not," one of us said. "We're asking the questions here."

"So you may be," the man from the party said, "but it's our press conference, and we'll run it the way we want."

The result was a virtually complete victory for the party machine. And so, at general elections and by-elections alike, has it been ever since. There have, naturally, been events which disturb the parties' plans: a woman with a delayed operation, a younger woman stabbed by a crazed criminal, a statement by a respected body to the effect that taxes will have to go up, irrespective of which party wins on 5 May. But on the whole both main parties have been remarkably successful in what everyone now calls controlling the agenda.

Of course, they want to control it in different ways, Labour emphasising the health service and the Conservatives, immigration and asylum, and so forth: though there are signs that the association between one party and a single topic may now be breaking down. There is, however, one question over which the two parties are united in not wanting to have discussed at all. That is the Iraq war.

When, last year, Mr Michael Howard said he would have voted against it if he had known then what he learnt later, there was embarrassment all round and a charge of hypocrisy against Mr Howard. Mr Karl Rove, Mr George Bush's somewhat sinister man-of-business, warned him never to darken the doors of Mr Bush's White House. To some of us, this might be the same as being told that we had failed to secure an apprenticeship with Sir Alan Sugar. To the leader of the Conservative party, it was undoubtedly a blow; all the more ungrateful, perhaps, because Mr Howard's predecessors had both of them adopted postures towards Mr Bush beside which Mr Tony Blair appeared a figure of sturdy independence.

Even so, it is easy to see why Mr Blair likewise does not want to mention the war. It reflects great credit on Mr Jeremy Paxman that last Wednesday he made him talk about it.

The late Sir Robin Day did not wholly approve of Mr Paxman, considering him rude when he had no need to be, and lamenting that he did not attend the Commons as often as Sir Robin did. In fact his practice was to turn up for Prime Minister's Questions (then held twice a week) and to leave at 4.30 or so, having enjoyed several cups of tea. It was his greatest lifelong regret that he had never been able to have a drink in the Smoking Room as an MP. For he was a political romantic, who had read the old biographies, or some of them, and looked back to an era which had ended probably with the death of Aneurin Bevan in 1960 and certainly with the departure of Winston Churchill from the Commons four years later.

Mr Paxman is not like this. And Mr Blair is a new kind of politician too. He made one fresh admission, which was that he had been responsible for leaking the name of Dr David Kelly. He had originally denied this. All it shows is that the Prime Minister does not always or even usually tell the truth, which we knew already. He certainly could not bring himself to give an honest account of the genesis of the war. He could not bring himself to admit that, for reasons of state - which Charles de Gaulle had correctly anticipated in the 1960s - he had decided to back America come what might.

The parade of inspectors and resolutions that followed then turned into a village pageant, reluctantly acquiesced in by Mr Bush and designed to provide a justification of sorts for the parliamentary party. When the resolutions failed, and the inspectors were withdrawn, the young war criminal went on his way regardless, no doubt with a troubled heart, but with the reluctant agreement of a majority of his party in the House. To secure this agreement, he had to tell numerous whoppers about the military capacity of Saddam Hussein.

No wonder Mr Blair does not want this to be gone into all over again. His reluctance is as understandable as the silence of Mr Howard. But why has Mr Charles Kennedy joined in this chorus of reticence? One explanation we can, I think, safely dismiss. This is that the Liberal Democrats are anxious to take Tory votes in Tory-held seats. Accordingly they must make Tory-like noises.

Do the poor boobies who write these things not realise that discontented Conservatives are more likely to switch to Mr Kennedy precisely because of their party's cheerleading performance in the war - and Mr Kennedy's opposition to it? From what people tell me, Conservative hostility to the war was greatest in the West and South-West, in associations whose officers and members had some experience of military matters (and were therefore quite old) and were also worried about this country's subservience to the United States.

There is another explanation, which is that the Liberal Democrats were not really opposed to the war, or not to an extent sufficient to satisfy the peace party at this late stage of the proceedings. Thus the party stopped opposing the war once British troops had gone into action. It was notably coy about when they should be brought home, and in what circumstances. What is mentioned less often is that, at the time, Mr Kennedy was sparing in his television appearances, leaving it to Sir Menzies Campbell to pound the Newsnight beat.

There is something in all these considerations, but they do not add up to a satisfactory explanation of why the Liberal Democrats have stayed so silent on what is, after all, the principal issue which separates them from the other two parties. The true explanation is, it seems, that they did not want to bring the question out too soon and so to bore people. It is the desire once again to control the agenda. This week there will, we are promised, be eloquent speeches and impassioned meetings. It seems they have left things till rather late in the day.

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