Lord Bassam: "agonised" Lib Dems should co-operate with Labour

Labour's chief whip in the Lords attempts to woo his Lib Dem counterpart.

The next general election might be a good three years away, but that does not stop frequent speculation about what the next parliament might look like, and which way the Liberal Democrats would swing in the case of another hung parliament.

In the latest sign that Labour is thinking in exactly these terms, the party’s chief whip in the House of Lords, Lord Bassam, has written a letter to his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Lord Newby, urging him to meet with them more often. He wrote:

The last couple of years have been a bit bruising for your colleagues in this house, and no doubt they will be looking forward to a change of management to see if it brings some light relief.

. . .

I would keep a weather eye on the general election and thereafter. Your background as a flexible friend of other parties may come in handy. Keeping lines of communication open to the official opposition party might serve you well in the longer term.

It’s quite a leap for the man who tweeted in March: "I wouldn't want to wake up & find I was a Lib Dem today & have the selling of NHS on my conscience when I know I could say No."

Bassam’s overture to the Liberal Democrats is not particularly surprising in and of itself, as it follows reports that Vince Cable and Ed Miliband have been speaking on the phone, a sign of thawing relations.

However, the directness of the letter is striking. He goes on to urge Lib Dems to support Labour amendments, characterising them as "agonised souls trooping night after night into the Tory lobby to vote in favour of even more ghastly measures". He also says that the party faces another three years of being "the Millwall of British politics".

Direct, yes, but effective? That’s less certain. While Newby has declined to comment, the letter has not gone down well across the board. The Guardian quotes Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott as saying: "Sorry Steve, your charm offensive is all offensive and no charm. Calling us Millwall is not the way to build Lib-Lab co-operation on the red benches – if that's really your goal."

Indeed, no-one likes to be patronised, and Bassam’s characterisation of Lib Dems as the victims of coalition is damning with faint praise. But although several commentators have noted signs that Labour is relaxing its hostility to Nick Clegg’s party, it might be that they do not need to worry about the party not working with them. As our Liberal Democrat blogger Richard Morris wrote last month:

Does anyone really think after everything the Tories have thrown at us – including just the other week the Prime Minister telling his PPCs that he has effectively dealt with us  - that the odd insulting speech or overture to our support would block us dealing with Labour?

Given that Bassam's overture to support has apparently managed to be simultaneously insulting, Labour should hope that this is correct.
 

Members of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.