Thursday, 21 June 2007

A Midsummer Day's Dream..

The febrile comment on which followed the emergence of the story in the Guardian yesterday has of course barely died down with news of the offer by Gordon Brown to Paddy Ashdown to serve as Northern Ireland Secretary in a future Brown Cabinet.

The Tory blogsphere has whipped itself into a real frenzy - naturally. However, I think this has all been very good and clever politics by both Brown and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell. We can't of course rely on Tory activists and bloggers to do any serious thinking about this - for them it's all about getting into power no matter what the cost in terms of principles and policies.

Sir Menzies knows, as I know, and most thoughtful people know, that while it could be argued there are three possible strategic stances for the Liberal Democrats - lean towards Conservative, lean towards Labour and equidistance - there are in practice only two. For reasons I have explained ad nauseam here and elsewhere, a Conservative - Liberal Democrat Coalition which, incidentially, short of a majority Lib Dem Government is the best possible Government this country could have, is a non-starter. Even if David Cameron wanted it, which he probably doesn't , he could not sell it to the bloggers and the activists who would revolt and split the party. Now, in my view, Cameron is better off without some of his more fanatical adherents but he probably wouldn't see it that way...

With one option closed, Sir Menzies has the choice of equidistance or lean toward Labour. At the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference, Sir Menzies put forward some "conditions" for supporting a Brown Government as part of a devastating critique on the Blair era. Unfortunately, and perhaps down to some naivete on the LD side, the spin on the speech was that the Liberal Democrats were offering to support a Brown Government. This caused us damage, especially in the south, in the May local elections as the Conservatives were able to argue that a vote for the Liberal Democrats was implicitly a vote for Labour.

Equidistance was the policy of Charles Kennedy and it served us well though Charles enjoyed the novelty of serving as leader during a period of unprecedented Conservative weakness. It's NOT an easy option and we will be baited constantly by the media between now and the General Election to say what we would do in the event of a Hung Parliament.

The coverage of the last 48 hours is therefore positive because it starts putting some distance between us and Brown. Walking away from Government may not please everyone but it's an elephant trap - it was in 1976 and it is now. If the public get the view that we have fallen out big time with Brown and that equidistance is the policy (and always has been under Sir Menzies if you actually read his speeches), we may start to recover the ground lost since 2005.

The line HAS to be that maximising both votes and seats for the Liberal Democrats is the way forward and that we offer a distinctive voice against Browneronism in all its forms. We learnt in the 1980s that trying to second-guess a Hung Parliament is a bad idea and it remains so. I would hope that the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party has some plans in place and we must avoid a repetition of the Welsh debacle.

All in all I'm actually more positive about the future than I was a week ago. The Liberal Democrats are emerging from the Blair shadow as a confident, distinctive, united party. We will NOT be Brown's stooges. How he chooses to deal or not deal with us is up to him - I won't be waiting for his call anymore than I will be waiting for a call from "Dave" Cameron.

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