I have crossed swords with James Graham on quaequam blog about my old Watford buddy Mark Oaten, who I see is often on the receiving end of, ahem, 'sustained and aggressive' criticism from a small but noisy section of the party.
Mark, however, seems untroubled by it all and among my acquaintances some people who I would not have down as Oatenistas are contemplating supporting him. But there is a way to go. I have a lot of time for Mark, but was never an uncritical admirer, either when he was my group leader in Watford or since he has gone on to greater things.
To read some Lib Dems writing about him you would get the impression he was in favour of hanging or had a portrait of Enoch Powell on his wall. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, Mark is insufficiently deferential to liberal pieties (I can hardly imagine him enjoying the liberator songbook) and secondly he doesn’t trouble to disguise his personal ambition.
But he is also ambitious for the party, which is or ought to be a good thing. I suspect some Lib Dems like their MPs as quirky ‘characters’ content to champion their constituencies, rather than single-minded aspirants to cabinet office.
In my experience Mark is a good Liberal with an occasional tendency towards populism and a Paddy-like weakness for new ideas. (Neither of which of course are great sins.) But when a few years ago research was done on the way Lib Dem MPs voted on liberatarian vs authoritarian issues in parliament, Mark (and Lembit) were the most consistently liberal (or permissive). You would think this was something that radical liberals would approve of..
Likewise, for many years the Lib Dems could have been accused of hiding impeccably liberal crime policies behind relentless campaigning for ‘more police’. Mark has at least tried to guide us towards policies that are liberal but don’t make us seem irresponsible. He has tried to widen the scope of the campaign against ID cards with some success. Although clearly he has sought out the home affairs brief, it is still a pretty tough job and one he has made a good fist of.
Even where I have disagreed with him – e.g. over the licensing act – I am surprised that he gets opprobrium that others deserve more. Don Foster et al were coming out with the line of scrapping the legislation until binge drinking was brought under control.
As I said, the bile from the blogosphere doesn’t seem to damage the Oaten camp. For those Lib Dems who enjoy knocking lumps out of their party’s home affairs spokesman for sounding too tough, when the other two parties attack him for being too soft, that is the sort of thing they enjoy.