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The Liberal Democrats lose it again

It seems like the only senior politician Gordon Brown doesn’t want in his government is Tony Blair. A cabinet of all the talents is turning into a cabinet of all and sundry, with invitations being issued, it is said, to Tories like Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Liberal Democrats like Lord Carlile, even possibly the former SDP leader, Lord Owen. Perhaps he’ll be knocking on Alex Salmond’s door next.

No one could decide whether the offer to Lord Ashdown was a bungle or a sting. Certainly, the former Liberal Democrat leader rejected it pretty contemptuously, as if Brown wasn’t fit to ask. But I’m not sure myself whether the affair was in the end, damaging to Gordon Brown – revealing him to be an underhand manipulator, or whether it enhanced his reputation for openness. I’m tending to the latter.

Think about it. Gordon has the reputation of being a ruthless control freak, a Stalinist who cannot tolerate the views of his own civil servants and fellow ministers, let alone the opposition parties. Well, I don’t recall Stalin offering many seats in the Politburo to the Mensheviks. A willingness to give a crucial role in Northern Ireland to a man, Paddy Ashdown, who has a world-wide reputation as a tough negotiator, and happens to be a Liberal Democrat, doesn’t look like the action of a politician who is incapable of delegating responsibility, or taking account of other people’s views.

The oddest thing is that the offer was made public at all. Normally, when top politicians discuss things like this, and
it happens more than anyone realises, there is a tacit understanding that confidentiality will be observed. This is especially the case among Privy Counsellors, who belong to a kind of freemasonry which obliges them to observe confidentiality almost as a matter of course. I’m beginning to wonder if Gordon decided he was quite happy to have the offer made public, even though it made Ashdown’s leader, Sir Ming Campbell, look a bit of a chump, since he had earlier made clear that he could not accept any Liberal Democrats serving in a Labour cabinet.

The Libdems have continued to sound distinctly chumpy, fulminating about “dirty tricks” and the Chancellor’s “underhand tactics”. But this is beginning to sound petulant. It mean, it wasn’t exactly Watergate. Does it really make sense for the Liberal Democrats to be so upset at being offered a place in government? something they have been seeking for years? The idea of replacing the shop-soiled outgoing Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, accused of spinning his legal advice on Iraq, with Lord Carlile, head of the independent watchdog on antiterrorism legislation, sounds pretty astute. It would mean that Brown could not be accused of having a tame, in-house legal adviser if he ever has to go to war again.

The Liberal Democrats really have been behaving very oddly recently, refusing to join a coalition in Wales, not even talking about one in Scotland and now turning down a seat in the the next Labour Cabinet. This from the party which has always made a virtue of its support for coalition government and power-sharing. You begin to wonder whether the LibDems are serious about government at all, or whether they have decided to remain on the sidelines of politics as a kind of debating club for eccentrics.

Of course, Ming the Mong – despite what some people seem to believe – hasn’t ruled out a formal coalition with Labour, only “serving in a Labour government”. A version of the Scottish-style Lib-Lab partnership agreement is still on the cards if there is a hung parliament, as many expect, after the next Westminster elections. But it still looks like a funny way to go about seeking influence. Just consider: at the end of this week, the Liberal Democrats could have been in government in Holyrood, Cardiff and Westminster.

So, perhaps Brown – in making this belated bid to co-opt Paddy Ashdown – just wanted to make clear to the wider public what it was that Sir Ming was finding so objectionable. To hammer home the message that the incoming PM isn’t an old Labour tribalist. In future, Brown will be able to say that he offered them real influence and they turned away. It makes Brown seem like the man who does the business, the man who is in charge.

Moreover, as with Brown’s extraordinary decision to overrule the Prime Minister over the Euro-summit last week, the affair adds to the Chancellor’s reputation as a ruthless operator. Telling Tony Blair by telephone that he had messed up on the latest incomprehensible Euro-treaty, was pretty heavy handed – even from the great clunking fist. Blair stands down later this week after all an you might have thought he would have been kinder to his outgoing boss, a little more magnanimous.

But Brown realises that he’s never going to be loved – well, except by Sarah. Not with his craggy, dour, lived-in face, with its occasional flashes of inappropriate mirth. Brown realises he is going to have to go for experience, authority, intelligence, competence, toughness and determination. He is looking more relaxed – as his hour long interrogation by the BBC’s editors showed. But he lacks his predecessor’s easy charm and he is not going to pretend that he is everyone’s mate.

Brown will settle for the image of a very serious, morally upright and uncompromising politician who is still streetwise. And that may not be a bad reputation for a leader to have as the world faces a troubled and uncertain future.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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