The Lib Dems might have moved on from Rennard, but the public haven't

Ask any "ordinary" person what the Lib Dems have been up to in recent weeks and they'll mention the scandal.

Being a mere Lib Dem activist, rather than a professional politician, means I actually have friends who don’t "do" politics – you know, folk who spend their Saturdays doing things other than getting their hands stuck in dodgy letterboxes when out leafleting, writing furious letters to the local paper or haranguing the council via enraged blog posts.

Yesterday was one of those rare occasions when I managed to raise my head from my hands long enough see one such friend. But guess what. He wanted to talk politics. So what great matter of state did he want to discuss? The economy? The debate over the top rate of tax? Crisis in the health service? Michael Gove? Nope. He wanted to talk Rennard. And more precisely, how on earth a professional political organisation made such a 24 carat balls up of the whole thing.

Raising this topic is not going to make me many friends in Great George Street, now it's been kicked into the long grass and is the subject of yet another investigation. But in many ways of course, that’s the problem. Sure the party leadership may want the world to move on – after all, the main media storm was three weeks ago. But I’m afraid the public haven’t moved along. 

Ask any "ordinary" person what the Lib Dems have been up to in recent weeks, and you won’t find anyone talking about campaigns on mental health initiatives, Danny Alexander saying no to cutting the top rate of tax, or David Laws sticking it Michael Gove. No, their overriding concern is why can’t the party sort out the sort of human resources issue that would have been resolved one way or another in a matter of days in any average-sized business. And – unlike other inquiries we’re currently holding– this isn’t an issue anyone is likely to forget about.

So while I suspect the leadership may be quietly congratulating themselves that the Rennard affair is no longer gracing the front pages (and cursing me for raising it again), it’s still the thing most front of mind for the wider electorate.

We may wish it weren’t so and we can media manage all we like, but better to grasp the nettle, hold the inquiry quickly, accept its findings, act appropriately and then move on. Because if you ask the public they’ll tell you – it’s not going away. And I’d quite like them to be thinking of some of the other things we’re doing – but which, while this festers on, we'll get no credit for.

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

Chris Rennard with Ming Campbell at the Liberal Democrat conference in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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