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  1. Election 2024
23 December 2010

Should Liberal Democrats be speaking out about the “difference” the party has made?

Proclaiming differences wouldn’t change the fact that the Lib Dems have won few significant policy v

By Samira Shackle

Today the Telegraph revealed more secret recordings of Liberal Democrat MPs. Once again, the revelations are embarrassing rather than disastrous.

As with yesterday, there’s nothing hugely surprising here. The comments (quoted below) are what you might expect from any Lib Dem MP seeking to reassure his supporters in what appeared to be a private conversation. The only potentially damaging suggestion is that David Cameron and George Osborne cannot relate to the lives of ordinary people: this is almost exactly the same line as Labour.

The comments indicate that these MPs wish to distance themselves from the Conservatives, and want their constituents, at least, to see them as a separate entity. This raises questions about the nature of coalition – further articulated by the backbencher Adrian Sanders who, obviously feeling left out, decided to speak out, too. He told Radio 4 this morning:

What is the point of being a separate political party if you don’t consider that there are opponents to you? And the Conservative Party is our opposition, in normal times.

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We are going to have to explain to people what difference we have made from being in coalition. That is where we are falling down.

Would this be a good idea? Over at Coffee House, James Forsyth argues that this would be “massively destabilising” to the coalition, and that while it would make the Lib Dems feel better, it would unsettle both voters and the markets.

There is probably an element of truth in this – were the two parties to disagree publicly over every policy. But there is a middle ground, and it is true that many Lib Dem supporters have felt frustrated at the party’s silence and absence from the debate. Liberal Democrat Voice’s Mark Pack notes today:

Half the Liberal Democrat ministers have both not sent any emails out to party members generally on what they’ve been doing since May nor placed a guest post online on a Lib Dem blog.

This is all well and good. But the crucial point is that, as my colleague Mehdi Hasan argues in his politics column this week, the concessions gained by the Liberal Democrats are very small and do not relate to any major policy area. Improved communication or not, it would be difficult to present Lib Dem policy victories as major in the face of ideologically motivated cuts to welfare, housing benefit, and reforms to the NHS and schools.

The taped comments from ministers indicate, above all else, an impotent frustration and self-justification – “I voted for tuition fees, but I really didn’t want to”. Making this same point, more publicly, will not change the facts.

The taped conversations: what they said

Norman Baker, transport minister

I don’t like George Osborne very much . . .

I mean, there are Tories who are quite good and there are Tories who are beyond the pale, and you have to just deal with the cards you’ve got.

He also compared himself with Helen Suzman, the South African MP who fought the apartheid regime.

She got stuck in there in the South African parliament in the apartheid days as the only person there to oppose it . . . she stood up and championed that from inside.

David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House

George Osborne has a capacity to get up one’s nose, doesn’t he? . . .

I mean, some of them just have no experience of how ordinary people live, and that’s what worries me. But maybe again that’s part of our job to remind them.

Paul Burstow, care minister

I don’t want you to trust David Cameron . . . in the sense that you believe he’s suddenly become a cuddly liberal. Well, he hasn’t. He’s still a Conservative and he has values that I don’t share.

Andrew Stunell, local government minister

I don’t know where I put [Cameron] on the sincerity monitor . . . is he sincere? I do not know how to answer that question.

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