Lib Dems move closer to Labour
SIR Menzies Campbell yesterday appeared to favour a coalition with Labour if no party has an absolute parliamentary majority after the next General Election.
By Graham Dines
VOTERS who want to see the back of Labour have only one option - vote Conservative. That, in essence, was the message coming from a confused Liberal Democrat spring conference in Harrogate last weekend.
It may not be what Lib Dem leader Sir Ming Campbell intended to say, but that's how it was interpreted by his own press office as the party set out its stall for doing a deal with a Gordon Brown-led Labour Party if the next General Election results in a hung parliament.
If Sir Ming is attempting to cosy up to Mr Brown, it is a totally inept strategy.
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He's telling those voters in the south of England and much of the midlands and the west country who are fed up with Labour that he's prepared to prop up Labour for a fourth term in government.
With the opinion polls clearly showing Labour on the slide, David Cameron has been handed his election theme on a plate: vote Liberal Democrat and get a Labour government.
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Take Colchester as the prime example. In three general elections the Liberal Democrats have successfully appealed to supporters of Labour - which doesn't have a prayer of winning the constituency - to lend them their vote to stop a Tory MP being elected.
But after a decade of Labour, the Conservatives next time will pitch their appeal to Lib Dems in the constituency to support them and help elect a Cameron-led government.
It's a strategy which might just work.
Campbell's speech also fuels suspicion that there's a Scottish coven at work. Sir Ming and Mr Brown are MPs for neighbouring constituencies in the Kingdom of Fife - Fife North East which includes St Andrews is the territory of Campbell while Brown represents Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. Sir Ming is also Chancellor of St Andrews University, which a couple of weeks back handed an honorary degree to the Chancellor.
The Conservatives will be able to claim that Tory inclined England is being cheated by the Scottish political establishment.
Sir Ming had intended to use his Harrogate speech to trumpet five tests for Gordon Brown to meet if he takes over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister this year. These are centred on civil liberties - especially a willingness to scrap planned ID cards - green taxes, breaking the poverty trap, returning power to local people and reducing the influence of Washington on foreign policy.
“These are the five tests for Mr Brown if he is going to make the change of direction that Britain needs. And if he meets these five tests he will have changed direction. He will have changed direction, and embraced liberal democracy.”
All this fell to pieces as a senior press officer told reporters afterwards that it was the first signal that Sir Ming would be interested in talking to Labour about a deal if the Lib Dems held the balance of power.
The right wing of the party - the so called “Orange Book” liberals who have more in common with the market economy of the Tories than Labour's state control - erupted in fury. The Lib Dem leader's chief of staff Ed Davey denounced the briefing as “unauthorised” and insisted Sir Ming had not been referring to a post-election deal at all.
But any rational reading of the speech would suggest that Campbell is ready to side with Labour after the election. What, otherwise, could have been the purpose of Sir Ming issuing a five-point deal for the probable next Prime Minister to consider?
And why ask in the speech “Are the Conservatives up to this same challenge?” and supplying his own answer “Of course not” if he was interested in forming an anti-Labour alliance with the Tories.
Most Lib Dem activists are left of centre. They opposed the Iraq and, in their fervent support of the EU, want a European standing army and common defence policy.
But a sizeable minority of Lib Dems MPs are more right wing inclined. And with David Cameron this week pledging to remain in the EU but insisting it change from an inward-looking bureaucracy to an outward association of states which is not uniform but diverse, any move by Campbell to keep Gordon Brown in Downing Street if he's been rejected by the voters, could split his party from top to bottom.
LORDS REFORM COULD TAKE YEARS
THE settled will of the House of Commons is for an all-elected upper chamber of parliament - but there's no guarantee that MPs will get their way.
It's far from a done deal. Many hurdles lie in the path of total reform, notably a new Prime Minister, a reluctant House of Lords voting for its own abolition, and a possible change of government before any legislation can be enacted.
The Commons vote shocked observers, who believed MPs would want to retain an element of appointment. But by voting the way they did, the Commons was sending a clear signal to Tony Blair and other party leaders that it's time to end patronage once and for all.
No more cronies, no more reward for public service, and no more safe haven for superannuated former ministers and politicians.
By a majority of 113, MPs voted for a complete change, which would be one of the most significant constitutional changes in Britain's history.
Commons Leader Jack Straw is to reconvene a cross-party working group to discuss the way forward once the current House of Lords has had its say. Although the Commons vote is only advisory, the Government would face a major revolt of its own backbenchers if it does not adopt the 100% elected policy.
Mr Straw told reporters he now had “not just a mandate, but an obligation, to deliver what the Commons has said.”
Voting on a series of options following a two-day debate on Lords reform, MPs also backed a proposal for an 80%-elected upper house, but by a smaller majority of 38.
They rejected any smaller proportion of elected members - including the 50-50 split between appointed and elected peers favoured by Mr Straw himself and Prime Minister Tony Blair. And by an overwhelming margin of 391 to 111, MPs voted to remove the last 92 hereditary peers from Parliament.
Chancellor Gordon Brown voted for an 80% elected upper house, but did not take part in the vote on a fully-elected chamber, and few think he will make the issue a centrepiece of his programme. Conservative leader David Cameron also backed the 80% option, but voted against 100% elected members. Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell described the vote as “a famous victory for progressive opinion both in Parliament and in the country”.
The region's MPs were split on the options. Only three - Douglas Carswell (Conservative, Harwich), Chris Mole (Labour, Ipswich) and Bob Russell (Liberal Democrat, Colchester) backed a fully elected upper house,
Voting against were Simon Burns (Con, Chelmsford West), Mark Francois (Con. Rayleigh), John Gummer (Con, Suffolk Coastal), Bernard Jenkin (Con, Essex North), Brooks Newmark (Con, Braintree), David Ruffley (Con, Bury St Edmunds), Richard Spring (Suffolk West), and John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East).
Voting for the 80% elected option were Messrs Carswell, Mole, Newmark, Russell, and Spring. Against were Messrs Burns, Francois, Gummer, Jenkin, and Whittingdale. Mr Ruffley did not vote.
None of our MPs voted for the 50-50 option.
Bob Blizzard (Lab, Waveney) and Tim Yeo (Con, Suffolk South) were absent for all the divisions.