Why I have joined the Liberal Democrats

A good thing to be said for a currently unpopular party.

(Picture courtesy of Conservative Home)

Last week I did the oddest thing -- I joined the Liberal Democrats.

At least I cannot easily be accused of crude political opportunism.

There cannot have been many who joined the party last week, or any recent week. It is not as if I am attracted by their popularity.

Indeed, the decision is a strange one in a number of ways. I am opposed to the Alternative Vote proposal, as I simply do not believe third or fourth preferences are of equal value to a first preference. I do not accept assigning powers to European Union institutions is necessarily a liberal or a democratic exercise. Liberal Democrat MPs were inexcusably wrong to break a clear pledge not to increase tuition fees. And the Deputy Prime Minister is at best an uninspiring figure. On these issues, and many more, I will not be a partisan party member. In fact, I expect to be thrown out of the party in a week.

However, there is one very good ongoing reason to support the Liberal Democrats, and it is provided by Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home. Montgomerie, a staunch Tory, has been tracking the effect of the presence of Liberal Democrats in the Conservative government: see his posts hereand here. Montgomerie is right in his analysis: the current government is significantly more liberal than an entirely Conservative administration would otherwise be.

Politics is about power. The Labour opposition is impotent. In government they were illiberal and often brutal. There is only one political force that is having an actual liberal effect in our polity as it is presently constituted, and it is the Liberal Democrats. It may not be as strong a power as it should be. The Liberal Democrats may do well to leave the coalition and force a minority Conservative administration to gain concessions on a vote-by-vote basis. But Montgomerie's "concession-o-meter" shows why anyone who wants policy to be more liberal than it otherwise would be should support the effect the Liberal Democrats are having on Coalition government.

What the Liberal Democrats are doing in practice may not be popular, but it certainly should be commended by any liberal person.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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