The Lib Dem leadership must stop deluding itself over secret courts

Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. Clegg can't shrug the defeat off.

Last week, as ever before spring conference, every interviewer asked Lib Dem activists the same question – 'what’s this year's row going to be about?' This time, the media gave us standard responses as well: Huhne, Rennard or "Plan V" for the economy.

And all week, to a general response of rolling eyes, activists told them the same answer: secret courts.
No one was interested. No one cared. 'Aren’t you more bothered that your president called you cockroaches and nutters?' was the standard response. No, not at all – actually that’s more of a badge of pride. We care about secret courts.
 
The clues were there. "The day the party fell out of love with the coalition", wrote Liberator magazine after so many of our MPs defied Lib Dem policy and trooped through the lobbies to support the Justice and Security Bill. "There is no getting away from the fact that there is a huge gap between what all but 7 MPs (and a few absentees) did last night and what most activists wanted them to do", wrote Lib Dem Voice. And 100-plus activists signed a letter to the press saying the bill was plain wrong (I was proud to be one of them). But largely, I suspect, because no one asked Nick about it on ‘Call Clegg’, both the media and the leadership thought it was a non-issue. Big mistake.
 
Nick appeared unprepared for questions on it in his Q&A on Saturday, his answers throwing numerous straw men up and being quickly battered down. In the least surprising turn of events of the weekend, it was announced that the #secretcourts debate had won the ballot to be the first emergency motion of the conference. Then the eminent human rights lawyer, Dinah Rose, announced she was quitting the party over secret courts. And finally, we saw one of the most respected and admired campaigners in the party, Jo Shaw, resign in the emergency debate in one of the best speeches made from the floor in a long time. It’s worth watching. Needless to say, the motion opposing secret courts was overwhelmingly carried. 

According to the prominent Lib Dem blogger Charlotte Henry, a source close to the leader expressed the view that the secret courts debacle didn’t really matter "because nobody in the real world cares". How wrong headed can they be?

Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. They won’t win another Eastleigh without the activists – and there’s now a move by activists to refuse to support any parliamentary candidate who wandered through the yes lobby the other week. That’s how seriously people take it.

The leadership are no doubt sitting at home, cursing Jo Shaw’s name and wondering why the grass roots aren’t busy repeating the mantra set down from now till 2015 rather than what we are saying – "no to secret courts".

It’s because we are liberals. And we are democrats. And Nick – we’re against this sort of thing.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes his keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat spring conference on 10 March 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.