For the nth time in the last few days, the Lib Dems have shown themselves thrown by the basic politics of government; as opposed to opposition, where they were supremely comfortable.
Whilst our own reaction to scandal, in cases such as Phil Woolas, has sometimes been unnecessarily brutal – throwing someone out of the party before, even, the most basic of appeals against the complaint had been heard – the approach at least had the advantage of dealing with damage quickly and effectively. The case of the hapless Chris Huhne, and his alleged attempt to pass his driving licence points to his wife, is proving anything but.
Whilst it would be churlish to damn someone – even the rather puffed-up Huhne – before any kind of investigation has completed, there are cases where you have an idea what happened, and cases where not. In the case of Huhne, the dimmest of observers can see the unlikeliness of the idea that his wife would deliberately have fabricated such a story: she has, after all, to live with her conscience (and her friends, workplace and children) afterwards.
Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that he did what she says he did, while acknowledging the possibility that he didn’t. He might then get off through lack of evidence, and perhaps that’s what he’s banking on: but the taste it would leave in the mouth is simply that this man, like Jonathan Aitken before him, has no qualms about lying to his family and the outside world. A bigger man would have owned up – not kept his job, but owned up – and may even, in time, have resuscitated his career. We can often forgive people who have done something wrong, but we can’t handle liars. If, of course, that is what he is.
That he took the contrary option would show two things: the first, a lack of integrity; the second, a lack of judgement. In fact, Huhne has already made us suspect a lack of judgement via his outburst at the previous Cabinet, when he tried to take on Cameron and Osborne. Now, helpfully, he has removed all doubt.
To be fair, probably only a few Lib Dems are lacking in integrity, like there are a few in all parties. But there are many who lack judgement, and it is this second which most dogs them – and a plausible explanation is simply lack of experience at the top.
The examples are endless: not just Huhne himself, but the foolishness of their sixth-former lookalike President, Tim Farron, savaged by Andrew Neil for defending Huhne on yesterday’s Daily Politics. As justification he gave a specious comparison with Blair: “Tony Blair remained prime minister while he was investigated, I imagine Chris Huhne can just about cope with being Energy Secretary.”
No, no, no, Tim. Did he not know that Blair was questioned as a witness and not as a suspect? And did he really think there was a comparison between a legitimate concern by lawmakers about whether someone (not Blair) was selling peerages, for which everyone was later cleared, and a shabby charade about penalty points in order to save Huhne’s wretched political career? Say what you like about Blair, but he would never have done anything remotely as stupid as that which Huhne is accused of.
And then there has been the deliciously egotistical behaviour of Cable, with his preening huffs and his silly hats. If there were a model for what the no-nonsense Clem Attlee would have described as a “vain” politician, it must surely be Cable. To lambast one’s Cabinet colleagues, especially in a constituency surgery, raises questions about one’s judgement. To do it twice suggests foolishness. Does he not realise that no-one really cares what he thinks or threatens? That he is in this for the duration, like the equally vain Clare Short, otherwise his career is over?
Where are the Lib Dems of old? The Paddys, the Charlies. Even the David Steels. They were wrong but, at least, decent and sensible in the main.
And finally…there is Nick. Nick, who fell into the miles-wide elephant trap of announcing the “New Politics”. For people growing up in the era of John Major’s disastrous “Back To Basics” campaign, it should have been blindingly obvious that this was going to be a problem. Set yourself up as above the fray and, sooner or later, you will fall down into it, twice as hard. The trouble started with David Laws, resigning only eighteen days into government. And, as an act of kindness, let’s not even start on the cruel and unusual punishments that Lembit Opik has visited on his party.
Why have the Lib Dems failed so comprehensively in Readiness To Govern, 101? It is hard to see them, currently, as anything other than amateur politicians in a world of professionals. For one thing, because they broke a golden rule of politics: never, ever, pretend to be whiter-than-white. Because there will always come a moment when your integrity is questioned. And when it comes, you will fall.
As Clegg himself has found out, to his cost, on tuition fees. In his case, it’s merely selling out his policies. A relatively mild attack, really, but it hurts because he so sold himself in the part of the nice, clean-cut young man wanting to change nasty, dirty politics.
But above all they have failed because, simply, they are not politically smart or experienced enough. This generation have never even smelt power before. They have no in-house role models for what you do when you get there. When you have lived through governments, or even led oppositions, you get a bit streetwise. The Lib Dems have managed to skim through life with a lofty, moral-high-ground stance, accompanied by a lack of political awareness and, on a few occasions but by no means all, a lack of principle.
So, the Lib Dems are imploding. A source of satisfaction to many, perhaps. At least we don’t need to waste too many resources on fighting them (except at local level). But best not crow. Pain in the coalition does not mean joy for us. As Andrew Rawnsley observed in a brilliant critique in last weekend’s Observer,
“rows between the Tories and Lib Dems…[can] make it seem as though all the significant debates are taking place within the coalition. Labour is cast to the margins.”
And, it’s vital to remember, their implosion does not mean that they will not hang in there, grimly, for another four years until, barring a miraculous comeback, their electoral chickens finally come home to roost.
No, if there is a learning point, it’s merely this: let’s avoid similar mistakes. Loftiness and holier-than-thou perceptions usually come back to bite politicians, and we are not immune to such things either, as Peter Watt has ably argued. They also cut little ice with the electorate: especially in times of crisis, when this kind of disconnect on what’s important can irritate those coping with a difficult day-to-day. It is notable that the party which fared best in the elections of 2010 and 2011 did so whilst remaining remarkably free from such attitudes.
It’s been a great diversion. What larks we’ve had with the Lib Dems, what larks. But now, back to our real enemies, please. The Tories.
This post first published in my fortnightly column at LabourList