The Dunfermline by-election win must certainly be set alongside its Orpington (1962) and Eastbourne (1990) predecessors as among the most famous in the Liberal Democrats’ history. On each occasion, the last rites were being delivered to my party; on each occasion, we have put the celebrations of Lazarus in the shade. Reports of our demise have been very much exaggerated.
Over recent weeks, we political reporters have given the impression that it was all up with the Liberal Democrats. We indicated that recent events in Lib Dem high command had converted the party into a national laughing stock; and that, as a consequence, the era of three-party politics was over. The Lib Dems were doomed. If we did give that impression, (and I’m afraid we did), it was deeply regrettable. It emerges that, far from being doomed, the Lib Dems have never been in ruder health.
Do by-elections matter? Did the Lib Dems’ campaigning guru, Lord Rennard, spend £80,000 of the party’s money well? Look at the press coverage in recent days, and you have your answer. (And I suspect the victor, the tenacious Willie Rennie, will stick around for many years to come.)
For, in one bound, we were free.
Suddenly the political commentariat has had to stop, stunned, in its tracks. Taking cheap pot-shots at the Lib Dems isn’t so much fun when you discover that the folks out there don’t seem to be listening to you. You could almost hear the hurt in reporters’ voices, as they grappled to grasp how voters could possibly have ignored all the abuse press and broadcasters have hurled in the party’s general direction in the last six weeks.
And, let’s be honest, the Dunfermline result came as a surprise to most Lib Dems too. Most of us assumed this by-election had “Labour win with much reduced majority on a low turn-out” written all over it. In fact, all these assumptions were wrong. Labour lost. The Lib Dem majority was beyond the shadow of a recount doubt. And the turn-out, though down on the general election, was a relatively high 49%.
We can, at last (and touch wood) draw a line under the party’s recent turmoils. Though I suspect the media were in any case tiring of their hyper-hyped “Lib Dems in freefall” guff, they now have little choice but to move on, and affix their bloodied jaws to the next antelope limping vulnerably across the political plains.
Which brings me to David Cameron.
Today, I imagine, his mind is rightly settled on matters closer to home; and that politics will not intrude into the celebrations of his third child’s birth. But the political climate will be a lot less benign for Mr Cameron on his return to work: the storm clouds are gathering.
For a start, one of the accidental consequences of the Lib Dems’ unconsciously determined efforts to dominate the front pages of this nation’s scandal-sheets, has been to de-rail the new Tory leader’s first 100 days in office. Under normal circumstances, the Lib Dems would be getting next to no publicity in the media. We would be safely ignored by the producers of news and current affairs shows, who can cheerfully ignore the legal conventions that operate in election campaigns which demand balanced and impartial coverage of all parties. Instead, it is the Lib Dems who have provided the major political news this year.
A leader’s first three months are vital: it sets the tone for the message to follow in the years ahead. Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure appeared jinxed once the announcement of his leadership election victory had to be postponed owing to the intervention of Osama bin Laden on September 11th. Any new Tory leader would have struggled to make much impact in the aftermath of that story: the Quiet Man was easily drowned out.
Mr Cameron is that most attractively curious of ideas: a novelty. As a still unknown quantity to most voters, they are willing to give him a chance. But they have absolutely no idea what he stands for, what are his values, what kind of Prime Minister he would be. The first 100 days was Mr Cameron’s big chance to make that impression, and it’s an opportunity he has yet to grab.
Commentators have been swift to pair Messrs Cameron and Blair as political innamorati. This is to do Mr Blair a serious injustice, for he quickly took Labour by the scruff of its neck. Within his first 100 days he had announced the abolition of Clause IV from the Labour Party manifesto – let no-one under-estimate or forget how brave and bold a decision that was. It could have backfired. Had Mr Blair been defeated, his leadership - and perhaps even Labour’s election hopes - might have been holed below the waterline. But, instead, he triumphed, proving his capacity for strong leadership, and his party’s preparedness to change.
Somehow, Dave, appointing Zac Goldsmith and Bob Geldof to head up policy commissions doesn’t quite compare.
That is why Mr Cameron’s ‘flip-flop’ gaffe at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions was so important. I can still, six days later, just about remember that he and Mr Blair were trading ‘yah-boo-sucks’ blows about education. Even that – in the Westminster goldfish bowl of goldfish memories – will soon be forgotten. But what I remember with pitch-perfect recall is that Mr Cameron was accused of flip-flopping.
Does it matter? On one level, no: PMQs is Parliament at its theatrical worst, and is rightly regarded with contempt by the public. Besides, didn’t Ming Campbell slip-up on his first outing as Lib Dem acting leader, and that was soon forgotten?
Does it matter? On another level, yes: absolutely. Why? Because it boxes Mr Cameron into a corner. He desperately needs to reform the Conservative Party. In spite of a deeply unpopular Government, and Mr Cameron’s media honeymoon, Her Majesty’s Opposition is level-pegging with Labour in the polls, and that is bad news for the Tories. Mr Cameron appears truly to believe the Tory Party needs to change, that it must convince people it is no longer “the Nasty Party”, that it understands their aspirations and can deliver them.
But there has been no defining Clause IV moment, nothing to symbolise the closing of one chapter, and the opening of a new one. Mr Cameron has not challenged his party, and his policy reviews are simply deferring decisions until a less newsworthy day. Unlike Mr Blair, therefore, he has not proven himself a strong leader, nor clearly demonstrated that his party is willing to change.
Each policy U-turn now will be accompanied by cries of ‘flip-flop’. The Tories cannot deny it, since they want the public to believe that they’re different. But the electorate is unlikely to trust a political chameleon who changes his colours simply in order to gain power. They trusted Mr Blair because, though he had reversed many of his policy positions since he was first elected an MP in 1983 – showing he does indeed have a reverse gear – they also saw that he had risked his leadership to prove this change was genuine. And they respected that. If you’re going to ‘flip-flop’ make sure you’re wearing sturdy boots.
Of course, the dream for both Labour and the Lib Dems is that Mr Cameron will retreat from his resolve to camp his troops in the over-crowded centre-ground of British politics; that, true to form of previous Tory leaders, he will counter the ‘flip-flop’ allegations by sticking to the party’s current unelectable policy programme. I think Mr Cameron too astute to make those dreams come true.
But then I also thought he was astute enough to recognise that transforming his party’s fortunes would require more than just a make-over.