The Mingterview (part 2)

We return to find our hero still in conversation with the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, following the Mingster’s keynote speech last Thursday. Will he ask a difficult question or will he roll over and have his tummy tickled? Read on to find out…

So far, the three bloggers interviewing Ming had covered the leadership, Prime Minister’s Questions, conviction politics vs management, the aspirant middle classes, the non-voting socially disadvantaged, the political sea-changes of 1979 and 1997, and the likelihood of a general election in Autumn 2007 if Gordon Brown gets an opinion poll bounce when he takes over. The atmosphere was conversational and informal, with some humour thrown in.

The mention of a possible election gave me the chance to ask about one of my current convictions: that the best way to deal with the Tory revival is to kneecap David Cameron. Puncture his bubble and the whole party slowly deflates. Unfortunately, half way through asking the question I realised I didn’t actually know what the question was, beyond ‘have we got a strategy to nobble Cameron?’

So that, shorn of all polite language and political subtlety, was essentially what I asked – although I did turn it into a joke about having seen Paddy Ashdown at the event earlier (for those not familiar with British politics in the 1990s, Ashdown is a former Lib Dem leader who used to be in the Special Forces: he’s always carefully avoided denying lurid rumours that he’d killed with his bare hands).

I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with the answer – possibly because I’d managed to start the subject off with a laugh, preventing it from becoming the serious debate about political tactics I’d hoped for. Mea culpa.

We do have a strategy, as it happens. Our strategy is to pile pressure on the Tories if circumstances allow – the Bromley by-election is a case in point – but otherwise to sit back and watch while Cameron self-destructs under the weight of his own contradictions.

Ming said: “The shine is coming off. How he’s going to get through 15 months without any policies I really can’t imagine. If he tries to, I think he will begin to come under a lot of pressure.” He said this wouldn’t just come from the media, it would also come from Tories with views similar to those on Conservative Home: “So much of what he’s driving them towards, the membership don’t accept. There’s only so long he can get away with that. A point will come where that tension will present itself.”

He was also scathing about Cameron’s media blitz: “He makes a speech a day about bugger all – did you hear the last one? About happiness? It was like listening to Ken Dodd. But seriously, at some point he’s going to have to submit to a 20-minute interview, and what’s he going to say in it?”

There’s no doubt that Ming believes Cameron will crash and burn some day before the next election, and he seems quite happy to wait and watch. I think he’s right. But I was hoping for something a little more proactive, a little more aggressive, to bring forward the day of the Great Combustion. Well, to be honest, not a little more – a lot more.

In parentheses, I should add that some people – the admirable Mike Smithson among them – have asked why some Lib Dems are obsessed with Cameron when they should be concentrating on attacking Labour. The way I see it, there are four main reasons:

  1. Beating Labour often means keeping a lid on the Tory vote: a tight two-way contest gets much harder if anti-Labour people are pottering about randomly voting Conservative.
  2. As said before, the prize for a successful attack on Cameron is huge. Labour, on the other hand, are being attacked by everyone else so why waste the ammunition?
  3. If you’re the third party you can’t just concentrate on one of your opponents: trying to is like taking part in a particularly combative orgy – you might be able to shaft one of them, but the moment you turn your back on the other you’re buggered.
  4. Politics isn’t just about cold calculation, it’s also about emotion. For many of Thatcher’s children, splatting the Tories is a patriotic duty. Plus, it’s fun.

I might have liked to pursue these points a little further, but a disadvantage of the interview format kicked in, and not for the first time: the three of us asking the questions were operating an unspoken turn-and-turn about. No-one liked to hog centre stage for too long but, not knowing how much time we had available, no-one wanted to stay silent for too long either.

The effect of this was that points didn’t get followed up very far and there was no flow or narrative through the interview as the subject changed often. In that sense it was more like a press conference than an interview – but a very polite press conference with no pack mentality among the questioners. Earlier I’d had more – and tougher – questions to ask about his leadership, but the opportunity to ask them passed and I didn’t like to rewind the discussion and risk leaving other subjects unmentioned.

So, while more might have been said about attacking the Tories, we went off in a new direction as a question about free trade and globalism let Ming talk about the likely effects of Indian and Chinese growth on the economy, society and politics of Europe.

And then suddenly we were running out of time. No immediate pressure to stop, but just an awareness that we ought to start thinking about wrapping up somewhere in the not too distant future. I had two questions from members of my local party exec still to ask, so I jumped in with those.

During the leadership election, Ming allowed himself to be trapped into agreeing to get rid of his beloved vintage Jaguar in the cause of greater environmental purity. As a Triumph Spitfire owner, I didn’t think it was his finest hour – classic cars are rarely state of the art and green-as-green, but they also get driven a lot less than road cars and therefore have a smaller environmental impact. Nevertheless, the die was cast and the question I was asking came from one of my more green-minded colleagues, Andrew Dakers, who wanted to know why he hadn’t just converted the car to bio-fuel in order to demonstrate that environmental consciouness could also be fun.

Ming’s eyes lit up when he heard about my Spitfire and he eagerly asked questions about its engine – ones, I’m afraid to say, that I wasn’t terribly well equipped to answer as I’m no expert on car innards. Unlike him, it would seem. When I asked the question his face had to be seen to be believed as he boggled at the idea of a bio-fuelled Jag. At length, when his voice returned, he admitted that the short answer was that he didn’t think of it in time.

The longer answer is that the car had a 12-cylinder engine, a piece of classic engineering that had potential purchasers ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’, and he wasn’t at all convinced it could have been converted. He said he kept fobbing off potential buyers and eventually donated the car to a museum where he visits on Sundays to stroke it. He said it with a smile, but there was an upsetting undertone of longing in his voice and I got the feeling that nothing the Tories could do to him could possibly hurt as much as this wound, inflicted by a supporter of one of his rivals in the leadership election.

From the politics of motoring I moved to the politics of race and international relations with a question from my good friend, and successor as Hounslow Lib Dem chair, Harjinder Singh. At the time of the French ban on religious garb in schools, Harjinder had lobbied for the Lib Dems to treat this as a human rights issue, with initial success that was ultimately squashed flat when the party (and Ming as foreign affairs spokesman) decided to treat it as an internal French matter. My questioning of this decision caught Ming somewhat by surprise – partly because I didn’t have sufficient grasp of the subject to explain it well and partly because it had come so completely out of left field.

Rather caustically, but not unreasonably, he suggested Britain needed to be careful when preaching about human rights to other countries when we had work to do on that front ourselves. He then suggested a letter on the subject would get a more measured response.

By now, time really was running out. A question about what came next after this pretty successful few days was met with a cheery “business as usual” – a rather chilling answer when placed in the context of the 97 or so days that had preceded them. He maintained that even hostile political journalists could see perfectly well that his first few months as leader couldn’t possibly be compared with those of David Cameron, who had had a transition period to get used to the job during a quiet time of year. It was tempting to reply that people who benefit from coups rarely get a soft landing and should be prepared for that fact. Tempting, but rather against the spirit of the occasion.

Meanwhile, Will Howells was eliciting some trenchant opinions from him on which was the best Doctor Who – so I gave up and switched to a different form of participatory democracy, asking who was going to win Big Brother (Pete, obviously). This morphed into a discussion of sport on TV and an assurance that he’d support England in the World Cup (but Great Britain in the Olympics, Europe in the Ryder Cup, and I think some Scottish sport as well).

And that was that.