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12 December 2013

Norman Baker: the coalition government’s envelope pusher

Norman Baker thinks that David Kelly’s death was part of a state conspiracy and still resents the Lib Dem betrayal over student fees. Will his promotion to the Home Office tame him?

By George Eaton

When I meet Norman Baker in the Regency Café, MPs’ greasy spoon of choice in Westminster, he is busily devouring a large portion of buttered toast. The Liberal Democrat MP is refuelling for another day in what he calls “enemy territory”. Baker’s appointment as Home Office minister, after three and a half years at the Department for Transport, was the most contentious of the recent reshuffle. The promotion of a man best known for suggesting that the British security services may have covered up the murder of the government scientist David Kelly was said to have left his boss, Theresa May, “spitting tacks”.

Baker does not attempt to hide the extent of his disagreement with the Home Secretary, describing the atmosphere as “hostile”. “It’s no secret that the Home Office is quite a political department and that the Lib Dems and the Tories probably have more challenges in reaching common positions in that department than in many others,” he tells me. “I think the Conservatives will probably say that because of the external threats we have to have more security than liberty and we have to sacrifice a bit to achieve that. We start at the other end; [we think] that liberty is a precious thing and it’s always possible for someone to say, ‘Give me some of your liberty and I’ll give you more security.’ And going down that road is quite dangerous.”

When I ask him whether he would like to see an inquiry into the allegations of mass surveillance by the British and US intelligence services, he replies without hesitation: “Yes. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable for the Guardian to raise questions about the balance between the state and the individual to take account of the fact that technology has moved on a huge amount and the law was drafted when we didn’t have the means of communication we do now – Skype and everything else – and the capacity of the security services, or the Americans, to engage in trawling for stuff.”

It is just 13 minutes before I succumb to the temptation to ask him whether he still favours a new public inquiry into Kelly’s death. So exercised was Baker by the event that he stood down from the Lib Dem front bench in order to devote a year to writing a 424-page book (The Strange Death of David Kelly) on the subject. “People who attack it by and large haven’t read it,” he says. “And I’d like them to come back and deal with the facts, if they want to deal with the facts, ten years on, but I concluded in 2007 that it was unfinished business and nothing much has moved since then.” Will he use his new berth at the Home Office to lobby for an inquiry? “What would have to happen is: the Attorney General would have to reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed. So that’s a matter for him.”

He adds: “The fact that there was no coroner’s inquest appeared to be of no interest to the collective media; I just find that absolutely astonishing . . . People can look at the evidence and draw their own conclusions. All I would say is in 2003, we had a situation where the prime minister of the day lied to parliament about the case for war . . . and then people say to me, ‘You should believe everything the government said in 2003.’ I’m sorry, I don’t buy that.” Does he believe the Iraq war was illegal? “I’ve got to be careful what I say as a minister, haven’t I?” says Baker, in a moment of self-awareness. “There are many who believe it to be illegal and they’ve made quite a strong case.”

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The conversation turns to the subject of tuition fees. Earlier this year, the Liberal Democrat conference passed a motion supporting the £9,000 cap, with Vince Cable telling delegates: “We and the other major parties are not going to go back to free tuition.” But Baker – who admits that “the only time in government that I’ve come close to resigning” was when the Lib Dems broke the “Vote for Students” pledge and backed rises in tuition fees – maintains, “Education should be free.”

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“I’m very conscious that people of my generation benefited from free education. I come from a poor background, unlike most people in government, and I couldn’t have got where I was without a really good state education. I’m deeply grateful for that and I couldn’t have done it had I had to pay a lot of money for it, so I feel particularly uncomfortable with the idea of charging for tuition fees as a principle.”

Baker’s Liberal Democrat colleague Nick Harvey recently suggested that Labour had “already won” on account of the number of 2010 Lib Dem voters who had defected to the party but Baker forecasts another hung parliament in 2015. “I honestly think that the party with the biggest chance of being in government after the next election is the Lib Dems. Because I don’t think either of the two [other major] parties can get past 330.”

While refusing to say whether he would rather partner with Labour or the Tories, he tells me that he has “a lot of time” for Ed Miliband. “He seems to me to want to try to articulate a position which is different to what came before – I’ve always got time for that. And I think he’s prepared to take the odd gamble, which is right in politics.” He adds, rather immodestly: “As someone who pushes boundaries and envelopes all the time, I like someone who does the same thing. I think that’s good about him.”

Having risen to number two at the Home Office, Baker clearly aspires to hold even more senior positions in another coalition with the Tories or with Labour. Should the man who believes that the state is in the business of covering up the murders of its enemies end up serving ten years in government, his fellow conspiracists will surely cry, as Winston Smith does to O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “They’ve got you, too!”