Michael Moore’s time to shine

The Scottish Secretary has been quietly effective until now. But how will Michael Moore cope with Al

"You! You should know better!" is how Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, recalls me greeting him when he first arrived in parliament, newly elected, and several years after we had first worked together as researchers.

And it's true. I can't bear it when friends of mine stand for parliament. I go out of my way to dissuade them. I hate watching them being torn apart in the media or in that vile snakepit, the Commons chamber. I would like all my friends to live cocooned in safe, secure obscurity. But with Mike, as with some others, I have been proved wrong.

He is the least-known Lib Dem in the cabinet, elevated to it after the David Laws fallout last year. Of all the politicians I know, he remains the person whose feet are most firmly on the ground. Just as well, considering his height.

He has been criticised for being too cautious. Some Scottish Liberal Democrats would like him to go on the attack more often, but that is simply not his style. Mike is not from the Flashman school of politics and to criticise him for that is unfair. He is not in this game for the thrill – he is there to get results and make a difference.

Value judgement

In this, he reminds me of Alistair Darling, whom most people can barely remember from the early years of his career, but who by the end of 13 years in cabinet had widespread respect. Like Darling, Mike is bright, pays attention to detail, and has grown into the job.

His tireless campaigning in the recent Scottish Parliament election campaign has won him a lot of respect in the Scottish party. He will need to rely on that as Alex Salmond attempts to drive a wedge between Moore in Westminster and the new Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader, Willie Rennie. But Mike and Willie know each other well, get on, and understand the way this will work.

I loved a recent story about some hoo-ha on a political scandal-mongering website. Michael's name was in the frame. He walked into the Scotland Office unable to find any of his key staff. Eventually he found them in a meeting room worrying about how to rebut the story. "We know it isn't true, so can we just on with the real job at hand," he said. Typical Michael.

When he was stung like Vince Cable by the Telegraph's honeytrap, not only were his answers great, but he didn't hide away. Instead, he went on air and justified standing up for Liberal Democrat values.

But Moore now faces a critical test. With a single party in power, since the SNP's unexpected outright election victory, the Scotland Office is in a pivotal position between the UK government and the Scottish Executive.

He has been thrust further into the limelight, as the Scotland Bill must now go through Holyrood for a second time. Its first passage was supported by the SNP, but the second passage is an obvious opportunity for First Minister Salmond to start flexing his muscles.

Hot potato

The potential for meltdown between Westminster and Holyrood is significant, but Moore has taken this in his stride, turning the tables on the Scottish government and rightly asking it for a detailed case for the changes they want. After all, he delivered a Scotland Bill where Labour produced only a white paper and the Tory manifesto promised not much more.

But what looked like a substantial package of new powers, likely to get though without controversy, has become a hot potato with the spectre of an eventual independence referendum looming.

Labour and the Tories won't want much in the way of further devolution in the House of Commons, making Michael's strategic role all the more significant. His accountant's mind has the forensic abilities to navigate this difficult bill. And he has a calm and reassuring Commons style that is a tribute to his Presbyterian minister father.

During the final years of Labour's rule in Westminster, Alistair Darling faced up to Gordon Brown, in the interests not of his party, but his country. Michael Moore has the ability and the character to do the same . . . whether facing Westminster or Holyrood.

The fifth man is stepping into the light.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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