Why Lib Dems feel they are locked in a brightly lit interrogation room
The mood inside the party is one of grim determination.
"It's so much fun covering the Liberal Democrats at the moment," a political editor said to me at the weekend. I can see his point. He is one of those rare political reporters who would turn up diligently to our press conferences during the 1997 general election. At the time, the party was on 9 per cent in the polls and we would pack the conference with staffers, hoping the broadcast media wouldn't notice the chronic lack of interest from Fleet Street's finest. One of the few journalists would dutifully ask the obligatory question about whatever policy we were promoting and then the rest of the questions would be about the potential of a Lib Dem-Labour deal. So I can understand why it might be a lot more interesting to be a political reporter covering our beat in 2011.
Conversely, I would characterise the mood inside the Liberal Democrat camp in 2011 as a combination of grim determination to keep going and a strong belief in the direction of travel - but, boy oh boy, the potholes and diversions are never ending. Take the past week.
First, there is the nightmare of watching Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce play out their bitterly fought divorce in public. Anyone who knows the Energy Secretary will be aware that he is not called "Rhino-hide Huhnester" for nothing: he will be coping with this media storm better than most, as his performance in the House of Commons on 17 May demonstrated. He has denied flatly allegations that he asked Pryce to take his penalty points for speeding in 2003 and now waits for the police to come back to confirm his version. Friends of Huhne are confident that neither Nick Clegg nor his team are responsible for whipping up the media storm against their man.
Meanwhile, David Laws has endured a week of leaks over the parliamentary commissioner's report into his expenses and subsequent suspension from the House. His friends are in no doubt that the leaks were generated from two sources: Tory MPs who still hold a grudge over David Cameron's treatment of them when the expenses scandal broke two years ago, and mischief-making Labour insiders who recognise the importance of Laws to both Clegg and Cameron. As Nick Harvey, a former member of the standards and privileges committee, said: "In comparison with others who were proven to be in it for additional funds, this was a very harsh judgement [on Laws]." Even the brief respite that came when the Press Complaints Commission judged the Daily Telegraph to be in "breach of media rules" for its pre-Christmas sting on Vince Cable, proved double- edged, because the ruling gave the paper an opportunity to reprint the whole story in full.
The losses in the local elections on 5 May were keenly felt, but did not come as an overwhelming surprise: midterm elections often prove difficult for a party in power. But the Alternative Vote referendum defeat was a bitter blow as was the rout in the Scottish elections and the subsequent departure of Tavish Scott, the Lib Dem leader north of the border. (The only light relief in that bleak campaign was the moment of bewilderment on the face of Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel 4 News, as he was encouraged to film Scott with his hand up a sheep's bottom. Not an unusual sightt or a born and bred Highlander such as Tavish, but for Gary all a bit of a shock.)
Behind the scenes, Lib Dems continue to swap old lag stories and remember darker times. "If you think this is hard, try being in the party when the leader was on trial for attempted murder," one peer said to me, recalling the trial of Jeremy Thorpe in 1979. Meanwhile, younger members recall having three different leaders in one year (2007) and the nightmare of the SDP/Liberal Alliance seat negotiations in the 1980s. Paddy Ashdown recalled the moment during his leadership when the party was an asterisk in the polls, within the margin of error of non-existence.
Lib Dems have always had a strong streak of gallows humour. Twice a year everyone gathers on the final night of party conference to sing "Losing Deposits" (to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda"), and other well-known self-deprecating campaign songs.
However, the glare of the spotlight is taking a bit of getting used to; something "we are learning from", as one cabinet minister put it to me. It feels like the bright lights of an interrogation room, built by an extremely hostile right-wing media, which has been unleashed on us ever since Clegg was compared to Winston Churchill in the aftermath of the first leaders' debate in April 2010. The difference now, compared with those grim days from the past, is that the Lib Dems are no longer irrelevant.
The business minister Edward Davey puts it like this: "I've graduated from throwing stones in opposition to building foundations in government and it's exhilarating. You have to be especially dogged to drive through your Liberal Democrat agenda. But the coalition agreement has been key and I think we're achieving an amazing amount of Liberal wins, but we're yet to get the credit." This is a coalition agreement which contains 75 per cent of Liberal Democrat manifesto commitments, compared with only 60 per cent Conservative, according to a University College, London study.
So relevance and resilience are the watchwords of the party. In conversation with Clegg last week, friends of his were struck by his respect at how the party continues to hold its nerve. The day after the 5 May elections he hit the phones, calling group leaders and parliamentary candidates. What he found was a party that remains steadfast. Even the commentators have been surprised at the minimal fallout from those election results.
“We've had a hard knock but what has been really impressive over the last two weeks is that folk have not run around like headless chickens," one cabinet minister told me. "If anything, experiences like this tend to bind the party more tightly, particularly the parliamentary party. Even when we do argue, they remain policy-based like the NHS, never personality driven."
On the night of the election results, I read a tweet, from the Edinburgh Central candidate, Alex Cole-Hamilton, to Paddy Ashdown : "If my defeat tonight is part payment so that no child will spend another night in a detention centre then I accept it, with all my heart." We both agreed with Alex.
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