Along the Yellow Brick Road

Last week, I took a break from writing to recruit some new guest contributors, one of whom is a certain Theo Penn. Here’s his first article – it’s a sanguine perspective on the political equivalent of John Cleese’s parrot. Hopefully it’ll rise like a phoenix from the ashes sooner rather than later! NK 

Since their mauling in May 2015, the Liberal Democrats have gained 20,000 new members, become a trending hashtag on Twitter (#LibDemFightBack), held a remarkably upbeat autumn party conference and successfully elected a bright and shiny new leader, Tim Farron. It would, however, be unwise to conclude the Lib Dems are back in the game, or the “comeback kids of Britain” as Nick Clegg put it. Without tarnishing their reputation any further, they must differentiate themselves from the Tories and Labour as much as possible, but be sure not to go back to becoming a movement of protest.

The General Election of 2015 was a pollster’s worst nightmare. The outcome: a stunning Conservative majority that shocked the Tories as much as the country at large. Perhaps more predictably, the junior partner in the former coalition lost seats – but Friday morning revealed the defeat of 49 MPs, a terrible drubbing which not even the most anti-liberal advocate could have forecast. Their election campaign was categorised by a “stronger economy, fairer society” slogan, trying to achieve, as ever, the ‘umbrella’ party status. But it was always felt they were fighting a losing battle after mistakes during the first few days of their incumbency (dare I say tuition fees?).  After the May 2010 coalition deal was made, it soon became clear that divisions lay within the party ranks.

British politics is, at present, extremely fluid. Jeremy Corbyn’s rapid elevation and the SNP’s domination across the border prove that much. As Britain’s traditional third largest party, the Lib Dems have always tried to hold the liberal centre ground. However, this holy grail upon which elections are supposedly won is constantly on the move, seemingly in the opposite direction to the government. After the Conservatives became the largest party in May 2010, it was felt that David Cameron had inherited the centre ground as the self-professed ‘heir to Blair.’ Nick Clegg spearheaded a right-leaning ‘Orange Book’ faction within his party, but many of his backbenchers would rather have formed an alliance with Labour. Defined centre-left MPs, like the late Charles Kennedy, would even have gone as far as saying that his leader had betrayed the party’s values and supporters by joining a Conservative-led coalition.

Of course, you can’t dwell on the past. The Lib Dems must be unified. And the man they have turned to is Tim Farron. An Anglican father of four and a graduate of Newcastle University, Farron is a politician who occupies the centre-left of politics. He has already held prestigious roles both within the party and Parliament, becoming Lib Dem party President from 2011 to 2015 and a remaining a member of the Education and Skills Select Committee since his election to the Commons in 2005 by his Westmorland and Lonsdale constituents. One would expect Farron to seek policies which will achieve egalitarianism. By August 2015, Farron set out seven top priorities for his tenure:  rural affairs, the EU referendum, mental health, immigration, civil liberties, the green economy and housing.  All are fairly straightforward liberal hopes, designed in part to attract wavering Labour voters and, with some luck, defecting Labour MPs.

Despite these lucid objectives, it’s crucial for the Lib Dems to keep a strong economy high on their agenda. Clearly, the General Election 2015 was fought and won over the issue: voters were swayed by the Conservative’s promise of finishing the job. Crucially, a growing economy provides greater job security for the electorate, and social climbers just fled from Miliband’s weak grasp of basic fundamentals. Although the Tories offered a better economic strategy, at the end of the day, their vote share only bettered Labour’s by 6.5% – but more worryingly, it only bettered UKIP’s by 24.3%. We can conclude that they were saved by the outdated First-Past-the-Post voting system – something the Lib Dems have always campaigned against. It is then obvious that partisan dealignment is happening in the UK. The Lib Dems must ensure that they take full advantage of this and remain Britain’s third largest party outright.

The Lib Dems will also play a key role in lobbying against the government in extremely important debates over the next five years. Most notably, Brexit. If Cameron fails to achieve his EU reforms, many in his cabinet have declared that they will vote in defiance of their leader in the coming EU referendum.  Staying true to the liberal free trade, and free movement of people, the Lib Dems will be at the centre of the fight to keep Britain in the EU. It has been suggested that, to bolster Labour’s opposition, a new Lib-Lab Pact will emerge. From 1976 to 1978, it was agreed that liberal spokespersons had the right to be consulted by ministers on policy issues before legislation was introduced. If a pact were agreed, and if it acted similarly to the original, the Lib Dems would be rebuilding their party while being plunged back into the political frontline. It would be likely that further blocking on Conservative measures such as Tax Credit Cuts would arise (a motion defeated by Labour and Lib Dem peers). Consequently, the Lib Dems would risk abandoning the equidistance needed to revitalise a battered party.  However, it should be noted that a pact remains extremely unlikely: very few MPs would want to be associated with Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Did the 2015 election signal the death of British liberalism? Why do you need a liberal party when a Conservative-led coalition will pass measures such as Gay Marriage? Yet recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, the migrant crisis and the rise of the Front National in France have highlighted the need for a cogent and muscular defence of liberalism more than ever. This includes the defeat of groups which impose hate and suffering through violence, but also helped show the need for compassion and nurturing in communities which need support financially or an acceptance to integrate successfully. Globally, Liberal parties have made gains. Recent elections in Canada saw a triumph for Trudeau; in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi defeated a powerful military dictatorship. So, with some optimism, I look into my crystal ball and see 35 Liberal Democrat MPs in Parliament after the 2030 election. I sincerely hope that the counteroffensive is well and truly underway.

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Nicky for the Nation

This week’s Tory conference put the party squarely in the centre of British politics – exactly where it needs to be. Despite a somewhat bombastic speech from Teresa May, some questionable remarks from ‘Call Me Dave’ and the best efforts of the loony left, it seems the Blues are back in business, perhaps a little sanguine and pretty self-assured. But, as previous articles have no doubt explained, the job description for next decade’s leader is looking rather lengthy.

“Heir to Thatcher and Cameron legacies wanted. Obliged to win election and inspire confidence. Must appeal to left, right and floating voters with a sizable dollop of backbench appeasement. Corbyn-thrasher, absolutely non-negotiable. Charm and appealing personality vital but must remain genuine. Most difficult post in the UK up for grabs. Experience essential. No gaffes please.”

Personally, I’d prefer a socio-economic liberal from the moderate wing of the party, and such an applicant would be much better suited to eat into an inevitably stronger Liberal vote and distribute an effective vaccination to Socialism. Though any future Prime Minister should be judged on their abilities and not their gender, it would also be rather good to have a woman at the head of the operation, giving the centre-right a fine opportunity to play their ‘Iron Lady’ card without acquiescing to some of her more divisive policies. An impossible job? Step forward Loughborough MP Nicky Morgan.

Since entering Parliament in 2005, Nicky has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Conservative ranks, colleagues noting her competence, skill and determination. Ascending through the Whips’ Office and Treasury, she was finally appointed Education Secretary in 2014, taking over from the controversial Michael Gove with a deliberate air of freshness and light. Following the surprising General Election – in which she stood and fought for her marginal constituency rather than taking the easy road of a safe seat on the other side of the boundary – she’s kept her key brief and impressed with regular appearances on Question Time and her involvement with the Bright Blue think-tank, responsible for many of the best and most optimistic ideas influencing the modern Conservative party. Tuesday’s conference speech was of her usual, high standards.

If you’re thinking she’s too good to be true, I’ve dug up two small blemishes, just to address that concern head-on. The first little error of judgment was implying that STEM subjects which have lucid career paths are superior choices compared to artistic fields which reap the rewards of overemphasis; it’s conceivable that a point may be found there, but I don’t think it was a great choice of words. Secondly, the issue of same-sex marriage manifests itself before the court. Morgan voted against this bill of equal opportunity as “on the day of the vote, I had 285 people who had written asking me to vote against it and just 24 asking me to vote for it; at that point, it was clear to me that people in my constituency wanted me to vote against it.”

She also cited her Anglican faith and a few technicalities in the proposed legislation which led her to oppose the motion, but it’s the inference that letter-writing is the best method of determining public views which really bugs me. At risk of descending into the realm of lazy stereotypes, it seems much more likely that supporters of Equal Marriage will attend Pride Rallies, sign petitions or celebrate equality over social media than pen a letter to their Tory MP. The opposite’s probably true as well. Morgan failed to recognise how the diversity of the electorate is reflected in their methods of expression, which are equally varied and wonderful.

It wasn’t much of a surprise, therefore, that the ‘Women and Equalities’ brief was sliced in two during the last cabinet reshuffle, with Morgan getting a brief which I’d rather see go down the pan and the latter half going to rising star Sajid Javid. However, when the repentant Education Secretary voiced her change of heart, the posts were promptly recombined and she holds all of them today. But let’s face it: I’m nit-picking, really.

In Nicky Morgan, the Tory Party has its best shot at an election-winning figurehead who will see them extend their time in Government to at least fifteen years and oust the noble Mr Corbyn from the Labour frontbench. Under her leadership, I’m sure the Conservatives will go from strength to strength and might well exceed the unbroken streak of power which they enjoyed in the 1980s. I’d even suggest that the British people may have no better future leader in the two main parties of Westminster’s hallowed halls than her. But that probably isn’t a huge compliment with the Commons in its present state. Even so, she certainly has my vote.

Most of my ‘featured images’ are scrounged from a dingy, Public Domain corner of the internet. But this one’s from my own collection. In February, I was honoured to meet the Education Secretary as runner-up for the Lord Glenamara Memorial prize, a fantastic event in University College London which bookended my year as an MYP. NK

The Conservative Catch-22

In the wake of the silence which followed my commentary on the future Tory leadership, I decided I wouldn’t write a sequel to spell out my thoughts that bit more clearly. Here it is.

With the Conservatives reinvigorated by two successive terms in Government, it’s inevitable that some elements of the Parliamentary party will look to leave David Cameron’s mark on the country beyond 2020, much as Thatcherite backbenchers proved to be a persistent challenge for Honest John. But the Iron Lady wasn’t ever seen as replaceable; her fourth son most certainly is. While there wasn’t any clear successor in 1990, there’s definitely a viable contender in the next few years: George Gideon Oliver Osborne, our long-serving Chancellor who’s rapidly becoming the Brown to Cameron’s Blair. Perhaps he always has been.

Unfortunately, rather like the ill-fated heir to New Labour, Osborne lacks his compeer’s relaxed charisma or appeal to floating voters, an issue compounded what many view as decidedly right-wing sympathies. Even though his Dispatch Box performances have seen something of an improvement recently, he may well struggle when confronted with Corbyn’s calm, compassionate style. Most importantly, he’ll have to win an election before thinking about legacies or consolidation. And somehow, I doubt he’s the right man for that particular job.

Similar problems plague the foreseeable candidacies of Gove, May or Javid, who would almost certainly be able to run a whelk stall with perfect organisation and efficiency – but only if the town crier were paid a pretty substantial fee to draw in the punters. Certainly, the perception which asserts the contemporary Tory Party to be led by non-entities and ciphers for each other’s egos would hardly be alleviated by most of the potential leaders who spring to mind, however misguided the foundation.

Boris Johnson provides a welcome exception to this view, but another foul dust of sleaze and distrust floats in his wake. In many respects, he suffers from the opposite problem to that which Osborne is facing: voters might crack a smile when he appears on stage, but some wouldn’t trust him to run the country or thrive on the diplomatic circuit. To put it another way, Westerners will be wondering what their little world has come to when the blonde bombshells of President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson are sat side by side at an international peace summit. Marching into the conference hall to the Peter Gunn Theme, no doubt: the Conservative Chums, the Blue Brothers, Partners in Crime.

There’s just one certainty about the next few years in British politics: they’re uncertain. It’s the only certainty, really. And that, I can tell you, is for certain. But anyway, we live in interesting times, and there are quite a few people who might have a stab at power come 2020. A mirror image of Corbyn’s sudden ascent to prominence, perhaps. I can just imagine the day when Peter Bone is greeted by rapturous cheers at a special Conservative conference, ready to lead his party into the upcoming election and beyond. What a horrible thought…

The Dave of Reckoning

I’m not the first person to work out that the Conservative Party has found itself in a pretty good position following their somewhat unexpected election victory. With Labour mired in cavernous divisions, UKIP smarting from defeat and the Liberals wounded in their worst result since the alliance’s jubilatory inception in the early 80s, the Tories are left with a clear choice: run wide to leave the legacy for which the famished backbenchers are pining or go for the apex and enjoy an unbroken streak of fifteen years in power. Only one tiny little problem stands in the way of a clearly signposted, win-win situation: our tactful premier.

David Cameron has, of course, announced plans to step down in 2020 and set in motion the election for a brand spanking new successor. I don’t blame him; it’s probably the right decision. By the time he leaves office, he’ll have led his party for fifteen years, nibbling at the Iron Lady’s high heels. But even John Major, the criminally underappreciated golden boy of Mrs. Thatcher’s latter reign, admits you’ve got to move on from that most prestigious of posts after a while – the stresses and strains of an indescribably important job, combined with the inevitable disconnectedness of high office, forces a sell-by date upon any self-respecting Prime Minister. Tony Blair chimes with him on this one, admitting that there’s a time for everything, not least power, not least perception, not least concession.

So ‘Call Me Dave’ is set to pull off a very rare trick and go out on a high, no matter what. But it’s inevitable that the pre-election appetiser he’s arranged for television viewers across the land will be a mêlée of competing ideas and principles, a battle for the life and soul of the party exemplified in just a few contenders. Nevertheless, obvious names are few and far between. Mighty acorns rarely prosper in the shadow of the great oak.

For those of you who are checking opinion polls and scratching heads at the sight of the words ‘great oak,’ bear in mind Michael Train-Spotting Portaloo’s really rather perceptive point about the types of people who we choose to lead the nation. There are, in fact, only two. One is the jobbing Member of Parliament who finds himself next in line to the throne whether he likes it or not – yes, they’re exclusively male so far. The other – and you’ll have no trouble guessing one divisive figure that fits into this category – are the ‘destiny’ politicians who enjoy a meteoric rise to power and the most sensational downfalls when they eventually manifest themselves.

In some ways, this mirrors the struggle between monopolists and competitors which keen students of capitalism and players of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ will certainly grasp. To this observation, I’ll add one of my own: since the era of media-fuelled British politics began with the Profumo Affair and ascent of pipe-smoking Yorkshireman Harold Wilson, the highest office of Government has alternated between these groupings without fail. Standing on the shoulders of their respective giants are Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown.

It seems we like change in this country, played out like a soap opera fuelled by the Daily Mail. So we’ll probably end up with a suitably dreary man in a suit if that highly unreliable method is anything to go by. And I can tell you it probably isn’t. Come to think of it, Portillo’s curious admiration for Wilson suddenly seems somehow appropriate. But I’m straying from the matter in hand.

David Cameron was only elected Tory Leader after four years in Parliament, and from there he revolutionised his party with an injection of vigour and the pleasant, open face of an airbrushed fashion model or well-sandpapered cricket bat. From the depths of ridicule, the Conservatives rose to become a truly electable force in a remarkable comeback almost worthy of Nelson Mandela, Slade or Lazarus. When the architect of this return to form finally steps down, it’ll be the end of an era. And that’ll be equally remarkable in itself: a political career that doesn’t end in absolute failure, and a ‘destiny’ Prime Minister who passes the baton with dignity and pride.