Lib Dem recordings: what they said

Shock, horror! Coalition makes Lib Dems feel uncomfortable.

As promised, the Telegraph has published recordings of conversations with more Lib Dem MPs, taped by undercover reporters at the constituency surgeries of Michael Moore, Steve Webb and Ed Davey. But although they include a few titbits of information – the cuts to housing benefits came as a surprise to Lib Dem MPs, for example – there's nothing in them as exciting as Vince Cable's claim that he could topple the government by standing down.

The comments merely confirm what many people suspected about coalition politics: it's a furtive, acrimonious business, and many Lib Dems are worried about what it is doing to the country and to their party.

Michael Moore, Scottish Secretary and MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

  • Cutting child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers is "blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do".
  • The increase in tuition fees to a maximum £9,000 is "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this . . . a car crash, a train wreck".
  • He feels bad about it: "I signed a pledge that promised not to do this. I've just done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."
  • The tuition fees increase will be "deeply damaging" for the Lib Dems.
  • Conservative right-wingers "hate us with a passion – and I can't say it's unreciprocated".
  • Lib Dem sacrifices are justified by an obscure sense of duty to the coalition: "What we've all had to weigh up is the greater sense of what the coalition is about."

Steve Webb, MP for Thornbury and Yate and pensions minister

  • He is concerned about looking "too cosy" with the Conservatives by hiding the disasgreements underlying the coalition: "But if people see us sniping at each other and bickering publicly . . . I know we perhaps risk looking a bit too lovey-dovey, don't we? That's the problem; it looks a bit too cosy."
  • The Lib Dems have acted behind the scenes to stop Tory proposals: "There's a lot of stuff that goes on behind, you know, a lot of things that will never see the light of day because we stop them."
  • He is worried about the child benefit cut, which will penalise couples in which one partner earns just above the higher-rate threshold: "I have written to the Treasury about this and, to be honest, the answer I got back wasn't good enough . . . I don't have a problem with the general principle but I don't think the way we're doing it is terribly clever."

Ed Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton

  • Plans to limit housing benefit would hit some of the poorest in society: "Their housing benefit cuts are going to mean, in my view, if they go through, that some people who are on the breadline will be put below the breadline. And that's just deeply unacceptable."
  • He had not heard of the proposal before its announcement at the Conservative party conference.
  • Middle-class families will be "very badly hit" by the cuts to housing benefit.

Nothing to see here

Unless anybody had thought that all the Liberal Democrats sold their consciences when they went into coalition with the Conservatives, the news that Michael Moore feels guilty about tuition fees is not surprising. Likewise the non-revelations that some Conservatives don't like the Lib Dems very much, that the Lib Dems are worried about losing their identity as a distinct grouping from the coalition, and that the Conservatives scheme behind their coalition partners' backs.

The lack of more shocking admissions – unless more are being kept in reserve – might frustrate the Telegraph. The paper's decision not to publish Cable's incendiary remarks about Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB takeover backfired. These latest revelations will not distract attention from the awkward situation the paper has got itself into.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue