Jeremy Browne speaks in New Delhi while Foreign Office minister in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Browne: Lib Dem leadership contest must include free market candidate

Lib Dem MP and former minister says "It’s essential that that choice is one that the party has". 

Ahead of the Lib Dem conference (they're going last rather than first this year due to the Scottish referendum), I've interviewed Jeremy Browne, one of the most party's most interesting and intellectually confident MPs. Since his surprise sacking as a Home Office minister last year, Browne has used his time well, first writing Race Plan, a radical manifesto for free-market liberalism, and now Why Vote Liberal Democrat 2015.  In the latter he argues that the Lib Dems must embrace "360-degree liberalism" if they are to flourish, championing freedom in both the economic and the social spheres. 

"If you talk to Lib Dem audiences about economic liberalism, which for me is the great global phenomenon of our time, and increased trade, competition and marketisation, Lib Dems get nervous that this will be seen as sounding too close to uncaring 1980s Thatcherism.

"As a result of that, we shy away from having a 360-degree liberal offer. We have a partial liberal offer. It reinforces the sense that we are hesitant about our own liberalism; we don’t follow through on each aspect of our offer." He argues that the rise of individualism and the decline of deference, most notably among the young, means that there is a "bigger marketplace" than ever for a programme of this kind (his policy proposals include the establishment of profit-making free schools, greater use of the private sector in the NHS, and a reduction in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p). 

Given the conviction and articulacy with which Browne states his views I naturally asked him whether he would stand for the party leadership when a vacancy arises. "This is where politicians are meant to give some sort of clever and evasive answer," he laughingly replied when I raised the subject. "Let me give you a genuine answer, rather than trying to give you a clever answer."

He went on to tell me that there were "three broad options for the party".

Browne on the three kinds of Lib Dem leadership candidate 

1. The protest candidate 

The first, he said, was to "slump back into being a protest party" ("the comfort zone of tweeting about student sit-ins"). He added: "I think that would be a real let down if we did that, and would be an acceptance by us that we were not willing to be a bigger, more responsible party, so I’m very strongly against that strand, it may not identify itself in those terms but I think that may be seductive to some people in the party." 

It is not hard to see that Browne has Tim Farron, the party's left-leaning president, profilic tweeter, and the activists' favourite to become leader, in mind. 

2. The continuity candidate

The second option, he said, was represented by "a continuity, steady-as-she-goes strand", which believes "we can just continue to find a way to navigate around some of the pinch point moments that parties face, and muddle along." Again, it is not hard to imagine which likely candidate Browne is thinking of: Danny Alexander (who has been positioning himself to stand).

When I put Farron and Alexander's names to Browne, he replied: "Now you're being mischievous," which, I note, is not a denial. 

3. The complete liberal candidate

The third option, he said, was to embrace "360-degree liberalism" (economic and social liberalism) and to be "the liberal voice in the liberal age". When I asked him whether he would personally ensure that the party is offered this choice, he told me: "I don’t have massive personal ambitions. It’s a big sacrifice being the leader of a political party." But he added: "It’s essential that that choice is one that the party has. It’s actually essential that it’s one that the party adopts but it can’t adopt it if it doesn’t have that choice. Now, if someone else can do that better than me, that’s great."

Lib Dem sources suggest that Browne has David Laws, the schools minister and another figure from the party's free market wing, in mind. But Laws, who remains tainted by his forced resignation from the cabinet in 2010, may choose not to stand. When I asked Browne how he would respond if another economic liberal failed to come forward, he replied: "We'll see". 

At this stage, it would be imprudent for him to say anything else. But if no one else answers the call, this liberal prophet will surely take the chance to preach to the unconverted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution