Last night’s Question Time was my first real opportunity to take notice of the leadership election campaign. We moved house a week ago, so during the last fortnight all spare time has been spent packing, moving and unpacking endless cardboard boxes. Debates about Trident replacements and alternatives, school vouchers etc. have passed me by.
Before commenting on the debate, I should perhaps mention the political baggage that I carry in assessing the merits of the candidates. I want the Liberal Democrats to be a party of the libertarian centre-left, a contrast with the Conservatives and with Labour’s patrician, top-down instincts. We should combine a clear social conscience and commitment to social justice with a belief in decentralisation of power and support for personal liberty.
Over the years, my biggest frustration with the Lib Dems has been the disjunction between the our professed abstract principles, which include an emphasis on individual choice and freedom, and the detailed policy prescriptions we arrive at, which often seem every bit as nannyish as those of New Labour. This stops us from developing a clear political narrative because there is no obvious connection between what we say we stand for and how we respond to the issues of the day.
To me Nick Clegg seems to understand this problem better than Huhne. He strikes me as a thoroughgoing Liberal, sufficiently confident in his own ideological principles to reject the kind of ‘intellectual cringe’ towards socialism that many Lib Dems seem to indulge in for fear being thought right-wing. Although there is much I agree with Chris Huhne about, and I would be more than happy to have him as leader, there seems to be a touch of the Toynbees, a whiff of patrician Fabianism, about him.
So my default position is to vote for Clegg because he is more in tune with my political instincts and beliefs. I have chosen not to sign up as a Clegg supporter, because I want to see how the candidates perform before reaching a final decision. But it would take something dramatic to convince me to vote for Huhne.
Last night, therefore, I was rooting for Clegg. So it is with some disappointment, that I say that Huhne came across as the stronger candidate, with a clearer worldview, which he articulated confidently. He was also the first to mention the importance of localism in our approach to public services, and gave a clearer sense of how we are different from the other parties.
Although Clegg was generally engaging and articulate, he foundered badly on the question about his criticisms of Huhne in the last leadership election. Had he been on the Today programme in a one-to-one interview, he would have been shredded for his answer that ‘this was in a totally different context’ and ‘of course I don’t believe that now because I haven’t said it again’. Far better to say that he was offering a genuine view about Chris’s last leadership campaign and that there is a danger in producing eye-catching policies that give hostages to fortune.
It makes me fear that because of Clegg’s attractive quality of appearing to be thinking out loud rather than sticking to a script, he has been given an armchair ride by the media so far. On the evidence of last night, there is a danger that he will come unstuck when pinned down by an aggressive interviewer, as he would be if he becomes leader.
I hope to attend a hustings before making my mind up. It would still seem rather perverse not to vote for Clegg given how strongly I agree with his political outlook. Last night did not to enough to make me change my voting intention, but it certainly sowed the seeds of doubt.