Why Howard Davies had to go

The LSE’s links with Muammar al-Gaddafi were not just financial, they were personal.

Sir Howard Davies is the latest figure to fall victim to a toxic association with Muammar al-Gaddafi. The former director of the LSE resigned last night over the damage done to the university's reputation by recent revelations of its ties to the Libyan government.

When Gaddafi switched from international pariah and supporter of terror to, er, staunch ally in the war on terror in the middle of the Noughties, it was open season for accepting investment from the oil-rich North African state. The LSE was one of many institutions to take Gaddafi's money. Indeed, it took rather a lot of it.

The university accepted a contract worth £2.2m to train Libyan civil servants (of which £1.5m has already been received). It also received a pledge of £1.5m from a foundation ran by Gaddafi's son Saif. Although LSE pledged to give away the money it has already received from this (some £300,000), it was not enough to save Davies's skin.

This is partly because LSE's ties with Libya were not just financial, they were personal. Gaddafi's son Saif studied for both an MSc and a PhD at the university. His supervisor, Professor David Held, described Saif as "someone who looks to democracy, civil society and deep liberal values for the core of his inspiration".

Held distanced himself from these comments when video footage emerged of Saif stood on top of a tank, brandishing a rifle and pledging to "fight to the last minute, until the last bullet" against rebels in Libya last week. "The man giving that speech wasn't the Saif I had got to know well over those years," said Held. Presumably Saif left his AK-47 at home during tutorials.

Colonel Gaddafi spoke to staff and students at the university as recently as last December, as unrest in North Africa was already beginning to flare up. The LSE audience is seen applauding the Libyan leader and laughing at his jokes in the video below.

Anthony Giddens, who taught at the LSE for much of his career, wrote a fawning profile of Gaddafi in the New Statesman in 2006.

"The Green Book is based upon a theory of direct democracy," wrote Giddens, in an analysis of Gaddafi's political philosophy. "Representative democracy, Gaddafi argues, is an inadequate form of government, given that it means rule by a minority and in which the majority have little direct say." Gaddafi has revealed himself to be not very keen on his people having a "direct say" in recent weeks, however.

It is highly unlikely that the LSE was the only university to benefit from Gaddafi's generosity. With student activism on the rise, I imagine one or two other vice-chancellors will be nervously checking through their institution's accounts in the next few days.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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