There were few surprises in tonight’s Question Time. A Liberal Democrat leadership special, it saw Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne answer questions from an audience that was half Lib Dem supporters and half not. Both started by praising the former leaders, Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, and both sought to fight for the middle ground, not of British politics, but of Liberal Democrat opinion.
In fact, in one sense the night was a fascinating example of Median Voter Theory, with both trying to appear most like most Lib Dems, so as to attract the most votes. In this respect, Chris Huhne undoubtedly has an advantage. Nick Clegg has in the past discussed policies and associated himself with more liberal and more individual-empowering (what I would call libertarian and what others might call Right Wing) ideas, whereas Chris, while also having written for the Orange Book and supported some liberal policies, has not allowed himself to be typecast. It was interesting – and discomforting – that Chris tried to damn Nick by association (“We are judged by the company we keep”) by pointing out that one of his supporters was David Laws, who has written positively about social insurance and school choice.
Unsurprisingly, Nick came across as frank and open, while Chris came across and earnest (“We will do thing differently because we are different”). Chris was replete with sound-bites that he had clearly prepared (which I will highlight below). He spent most of his time positioning himself: he was anti-Trident; he claimed to have originated the policy of setting a date for withdrawing from Iraq. Nick was forced onto the back foot early on when David Dimbleby raised a critique he had made of Chris 18 months before.On the question of coalitions, both were less strong than they could be. Of course both refused to state with which party they would prefer to deal in the event of a hung parliament, but as a result both appeared to be avoiding answering the question, rather than explaining why they could not answer. Nick appeared to fudge, while Chris suggested that a Purple Coalition between the Tories and Labour was a likely prospect, as the two tried to squeeze the Lib Dems out of government. In fact, this is an extremely implausible suggestion for the very reasons that Chris raised when discussing the results of such an outcome: the upshot would be that the Lib Dems would be strengthened by being seen as the real alternative to the cosy Tory-Labour consensus. Nonetheless, Chris persisted in suggesting it was possible, which I think lacked credibility. He kept referring to himself as a “First, Best Liberal Democrat” and noted that our current electoral system “stinks”. Nick argued that the Lib Dems should not be seen as an “annex” of other parties but should seek a more liberal world, and interestingly (though without presenting any explanation) suggested that we might be two elections away from the end of the two party “grip on power”.
Where I think both failed here is that neither made two crucial and honest points: firstly, that decisions on coalitions must depend entirely on how liberal the other parties are prepared to be in the programme they are willing to propose for a coalition government (put simply, we will ally with the party that is prepared to join us in the most liberal coalition), and second that we would have to be guided by electoral reality (if one party won 300 seats and another 200, we would have to at least give the larger party first refusal). Both fluffed this issue, and I was surprised and disappointed that they did.
The first real policy spat started with Trident. Accusations began to fly as Nick accused Chris of being willing to build a new generation of missiles while Nick would prefer to keep all negotiating options open as we go into the 2010 disarmament talks; while Chris denied this and suggested that we would be better spending the money on equipment for troops rather than new nukes. Chris made a bid for the anti-American vote by arguing that Trident wed us to the United States and somehow suggesting a link between this and the Iraq war – a suggestion that does not bear up to scrutiny. But he made a good point about Pakistan in saying that if we support President Musharraf we might end up repeating the mistake we (the UK and the US) made when supporting the Shah or Iran in the 1970s.
The spat over, the question on what the Lib Dems would say to a voter seeking lower taxes was a damp squib. Both agreed flatly that they completely agreed with one another that Lib Dem policy presented a lower and fairer tax burden, and that was that. Dimbleby moved on.
Asked how we should tell them apart, however, both resorted to listing their curriculum vitae, which pointed out that both had lives and careers before politics – a strength which both bring to the House and to the Party and which help make both more rounded people and promising potential leaders. This was Nick’s big moment, as he chose it to deliver his haymaker – a big, impassioned speech about why he went into politics: his “Anger that so many children go through the day without getting a hot meal”, the fact that poor people in Sheffield die 14 years earlier than their rich neighbours, his opposing to the war, the extra money for the NHS that has been wasted, the to 15-20 per cent of children who leave school unable to read and write.
This highlighted one of Chris’ main challenges as a potential leader, which is that while he undoubtedly feels just as passionate as Nick or anybody else, he often fails to express it; to convey it. Nonetheless he did make an emotive plea for the party to prioritise equality (“a fair start and an open road”) as well as liberty and opportunity – a position with which many and probably most Liberal Democrats would agree. He is undoubtedly genuine in this and sees this (whether correctly or not I do not know) as a difference between him and Nick. Where he was less honest, however, was in his criticism of “Top-down market solutions” to public sector efficiency problems. This is a remarkable comment for an economist: the whole point of the market is that it is bottom up; individuals express their will by allocating their resources themselves, rather than having them allocated for them by officials. As a paean for more localism it had a certain internal logic, and will appeal to Lib Dem voters. But it missed the fundamental point that empowering individuals improves the services they and everybody else enjoys.
As the programme wound down, the gaps narrowed again. Both utilised state schools (who, now in politics, does not!) and opposed raising the compulsory education age to 18 (though it was interesting to note that Chris had misunderstood the proposal, suggesting that it would not benefit those like his son who were less academic and would benefit from an apprenticeship, which is in fact one of the government’s routes through training for over 16s). Chris said that he shared Gordon Brown’s ambition to match the average spending on state pupils to that of private pupils – a noble goal, but an impossible one, as private education is largely used by those who are prepared to spend above the average; a rise in state spending will merely reduce the size of the private sector and raise the average cost. Neither was clear enough here: compulsion is a daft idea; all young people should have access to education, but none should be forced. The option to defer that education should also be considered.
On voting ages and the failings of David Cameron, both were in agreement; on the best qualities of the other, a love-in ensued. It ended a bit suddenly and unsatisfactorily. Neither delivered the knock-out blow, though if anything I think Chris Huhne did himself more favours, for while I question much of what he said and of what he did, his deliberate efforts to place himself “to the Left” of Nick and so perhaps closer to the median Lib Dem voter may nonetheless be successful. Only time, Sunday’s Politics Show and the forthcoming hustings will show. Oh, and the vote itself, of course.