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.

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.