Leadercide – not so easy

So – another coup bites the dust.

Hoon and Hewitt have egg, no – a whole omelette on their faces. So what happened? I assume that H & H had reason to believe that the six cabinet members named on the news last night had indicated that they would jump if the water looked inviting. Clearly – within an hour of their letter/text to colleagues  – the water was icy and none of them jumped. And not jumping – the lukewarm messages of support for Brown dribbled out in an untimely and limp-wristed way.

So – Brown is damaged. Labour is damaged. H &H are damaged. Well done team Labour!

But, leadercide is not easy. I first arrived in Parliament in May 2005, to a strange atmosphere in our Parliamentary Party. I didn’t really know why, as this was clearly my first experience of a Parliamentary Party, and for all I knew that might have been normal – but it felt bad.

 Of course, now, we all know from what happened that Charles Kennedy was in trouble because of his then drinking problem and there was a need for drastic action which did take place and did result in his resignation. Of course, the difference is huge in that Charles was a great leader, much loved by the Party and the country and the problem was a very human problem. Perhaps this was even more difficult – as it wasn’t his talent or ability that was the issue – and colleagues were rightly very reluctant to hurt him. However, in a situation which in a way was more difficult, actually Ed and everyone recognised that if we were to act we had to act swiftly and all together or not at all.

However, it was my induction into how important it is to know clearly in your own mind what you believe must happen and then act upon it when and if the moment arrives. I remember getting a call from Ed Davey saying that a letter was going to Charles which basically said if he didn’t resign the signatories would all resign their positions – did I want to be a signatory. I was spokesperson for Crime and Policing at the time but not a member then of our Shadow Cabinet.

I remember saying I would have a think and phone him back. I put the phone down – but within a few minutes picked it up again and called Ed back – knowing in my own mind that Charles had to go for the sake of the Party and therefore I would and should be a signatory. As I walked from my kitchen into the my lounge the moving Sky headline on the bottom of the screen said something like ‘and one of the first signatories is Lynne Featherstone’. It terrified the life out of me. I had no concept of the public aspect of the decisions you take – as a new MP.

Anyway – the point of telling this story – is to demonstrate the importance of making a decision in your own mind – so that when the moment comes those who needed to act did so. What seems to have failed so monumentally in the Hoon/Hewitt fiasco is that they were weak in their actions, that none of the cabinet were prepared to actually show leadership and put their heads above the parapet and the timing and the moment was wrong. It’s a real – he who hesitates is lost – scenario.

With no leadership, no defined successor, no specific action to be taken – even the mild and misguided aspiration that this would settle the matter once and for all – was lost.

Leadercide needs real guts ,and right timing. H & H and the cabinet apparently had neither.

Leadership latest

So – Nick Clegg has announced his candidacy for the leadership. I didn’t really think he was likely to be overcome by an attack of modesty and not put his name forward – so the battle (friendly and positive) is joined.

At the same time, we get great news today that some of Charles Kennedy’s core team is coming to help our campaign! Chris Huhne today confirmed that Dick Newby and Anna Werrin would be playing key roles in his leadership campaign team. Lord Newby will serve as the campaign’s Treasurer and Anna Werrin will be Campaign Manager. Both previously worked for Charles Kennedy when he was Leader of the Liberal Democrats – Dick Newby as Chief of Staff and Anna Werrin as Head of Office.

Ming Campbell's conference speech

Ming’s speech went Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell makes his speech to party conferencewell and it was good. I am glad he didn’t try to be anything he isn’t or resort to gimmicks. Ming’s strength is serious commitment and integrity and belonging to an era where men stood for something and stood by their word. That’s his forte. The speech itself covered all the bases and sent us (the party faithful) home content with a week in which we grew in confidence and progressed in content.

I finally bought Greg Hurst’s book ‘Charles Kennedy – A Tragic Flaw’. Now the story in full is in the public domain. I feature briefly – the book revealing how in the Parliamentary Party before Christmas when Charles opened the floor up for comments I was the first MP (after nine or ten had spokes in support of Charles) to raise the issue of his drinking – albeit I termed it ‘personal habits’. Then Julia Goldsworthy followed later saying how unhappy she was with the way things were then being run in the party in parliament. Both she and I were in the group of 25 MPs who signed a letter saying we would resign our front bench positions if Charles didn’t resign. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I saw Charles on Question Time last night – and he was on pretty good form. His conference speech was well received – he is held in much affection in the party – but it was quite clear that his political salad days are past and his future hopefully will be as an effective front bencher – when the time is right.

Finishing fifth in the leadership election

Time to catch up now on the day of the leadership election. Early in the morning I go to the Electoral Services building in Clarendon Road where the count is to be held – and it’s actually in my Hornsey & Wood Green constituency. As I arrive it is great to be the local MP and we agree that I will come back another day to make an ‘official’ visit as there are some issues they need to discuss with me.

We (and there are six members of each of the leadership contenders’ camps admitted to the count) are first in a coffee room – where our mobiles and Blackberries are taken off of us. The count is to be absolutely rock solid in terms of no leaks of the result or how it is going during the day. And then we go in – and it begins. It is always strange to watch the ballot papers as they begin to tell the story of the result. At first it looked as if Chris and Ming were pretty much even with Simon trailing slightly. I thought we were in with a chance until after about an hour or so – I went over to the table where Ming’s first preferences were being checked – and whilst on the initial counting tables the piles looked even – it was pretty clear over here that Ming’s votes were piling up ahead. But one hopes against hope and experience – but the differential was clear and by midday the first stage of the counting was finished and the contender with the least first preferences (Simon) was eliminated.

Simon’s ballot papers were there distributed to Chris or Ming – depending who had got the second preference after Simon. Ming had more of Simon’s secnd preferences than Chris – so the differential increased. And Ming’s pile grew higher – and around 1.30pm the count was finished and Ming was our new Leader.

A moment of light relief! The ‘spoilt’ ballot papers were checked by the three agents. There were a few with Charles Kennedy written on them – and there was one with Lynne Featherstone written on. So technically I came joint fifth in the leadership campaign with a couple of others also having one vote!

So at 1.30pm we knew the result but no one outside must know. We were put back in the coffee room and our mobiles etc were given back – but we were on pain of death not to text or phone out. At 2pm three cabs came to take us to the LGA (Local Government Association) in Smith Square where the result was to be announced.

Packed to the rafters with MPs and journalists and broadcasters – Navnit Dholakia came in and read out the results – which you can read on the Lib Dem website.

The two losing contestants gave short speeches. Chris paid full tribute to Ming. And Ming, I am glad to say, cheered me up by saying that he would not simply be ‘a safe pair of hands’ and that consolidation would not be enough. Too right! Ming said he would take risks, wanted power and would have a radical reforming agenda and a crusade on poverty’ – so whilst disappointed over Chris – at least the promise is dynamic.

Following the speeches, there was the usual media scrum for interviews with the new leader, the losing candidates and anyone else that the journos could get hold of. I did a piece for BBC London who asked how I felt. So I simply said that on the day when my candidate had lost I was obviously sad – but by tomorrow I would pick myself up, dust myself off – and be happy that we can now move forward as a party. I did a piece for the Today program and then we walked from the LGA to our LibDem HQ in Cowley Street.

Ming lead and we walked with him – the MPs – and then on the spiral stairs of the HQ literally packed to the rafters, Ming greeted the HQ staff. And he was very good. And then we all went off to our three separate ‘parties’ and I drowned my sorrows with a glass or two.

How to beat Gordon Brown

Imagine the scene. It’s a few weeks before the next general election. Gordon Brown – now Prime Minister – is reeling off another of his lists of economic statistics. He is about to launch New Labour’s general election campaign centred – as they have all been – on their economic record.

Who as Liberal Democrat leader could match him economic fact for economic fact in the debate in Parliament? Who will persuade leading journalists during the subsequent forensic media cross-examination as regards those key pocket-book issues?

For me, the clear answer is Chris Huhne.

Chris’s record as an economist, successful businessman and senior economics journalist give him the skills and expertise to do just that.

Of course credibility is not the only thing.

Important to me too are the beliefs behind Chris’s economic credibility.

A strong belief in the environment – to be protected and restored by taxing the activities that damage it while using the revenues to provide alternatives such as better public transport.

A commitment to social justice, most importantly by taking the poorest out of income tax all together.

Chris has the right priorities for our party, and decades of experience campaigning for them.

But Chris also showed his strength of character long before entering politics.

One of his first assignments as a journalist was reporting undercover from India during Mrs Ghandi’s crisis.

Chris stood up to Robert Maxwell – continuing to report his wrongdoings despite having four libel writs outstanding.

This shows a certain bravery and principle that was sorely missing from many journalists who took the easy option and turned a blind eye to Maxwell’s crimes.

There are only a few short weeks between the election of our new leader and the vital May local election campaigns (including in my own patch – Haringey – where we hope to take control of the council from Labour).

We need a leader who will be absolutely sure-footed in dealing with the media from day one, if not before. In just the few weeks of this leadership campaign Chris has shown his ability to win media coverage – coming from 200-1 outsider to within sight of the winning post.

What’s more, Chris’s campaigning experience of facing down one of the best-funded Tory campaigns in southern England and winning also means that with him as leader we can be sure to have someone who actively and productively supports our campaigning activity and leads by example in using the latest campaign techniques.

That’s why so many of the MPs who were elected for the first time last May – like both myself (a huge swing from Labour) and Lorely Burt, winner of Solihull on a dramatic swing from the Tories – are backing Chris.

We’ve seen the benefits of fighting modern, cutting-edge campaigns in our own seats, winning from both Labour and the Tories – and want to see those ideas spread much, much further in the party.

The wealth of experience Chris would bring to being leader of our party is reflected in the breadth of support he has already built up – including such highly experienced participants in the political scene as Bill Rodgers (SDP founder and former leader in the House of Lords).

Bill has seen an awful lot of party leaders of all stripes come and go over the decades – far more than me! – and in his measure, Chris certainly has what it take to lead and to win.

With any leader, there’s always a careful balance to be struck between wanting someone who will lead and give direction on the one hand, and on the other hands having someone who will respect and work with the party’s – quite rightly democratic – policy-making process.

With Chris, we know what we’re getting. He’s already chaired the party’s key public services policy commission under Charles Kennedy – working successfully with all parts of the party to produce a distinctive, effective and liberal set of policies to improve our services and radically cut down the power of central government and central bureaucrats.

Outside the party too, Chris is rated as the man who can do it:

“Brains and political acumen to match Labour ministers” (Guardian)
“Fluent and persuasive” (Daily Telegraph)
“No political novice … he has long been one of the party’s key thinkers” (BBC)
“Strong reputation” (ITN)
“A high profile among Lib Dem members” (The Times)
“Able” (The Independent)

If you’re still not sure if you agree with me, or the Guardian, or the Daily Telegraph, or the BBC, or ITN, or The Times, or The Independent, or … (!), you can find out more about Chris at his website, www.chris2win.org

Alternatively, if you would like to hear what others are saying about Chris, why not have a look at http://www.bloggers4chris.org.uk – as a featured blogger, I really recommend it!

David Cameron's debut

Off bright and early to Parliament for a ‘Green Ministers’ breakfast briefing on the proposed Marine Bill – still in its infancy. I am the ‘Green Minister’ for our Home Office team. Our manifesto commitment was to interweave green issues into the heart of all issues – so each Lib Dem team has its own Green Minister.

Today’s subject is really interesting – although not directly related to my constituency (being landlocked). It is helpful to be briefed by the experts in the field of marine life to understand the issues. What strikes me is the point they make about us having land planning laws and regs until they are coming out of our ears – but virtually nothing for our seas. Rare species and environments are disappearing, virtually nothing is protected and there seem to be no rules about priorities in terms of planning at sea. So someone can create a port – anywhere – with no regard to damage by placement and no requirement to even consider it. At least the Government is prepared to bring forward the legislation – but not all the departments seem fully engaged and you need the ODPM and the DTI fully on board!

Home Affairs team meeting is followed by Prime Ministers’ Questions. Of course, it’s David Cameron’s debut! He did really well on his first bite of the cherry, nicely telling off Hilary Armstrong for sitting there shouting childish comments at him. She does this all the time and it is unedifying and a public telling off saw her blush nicely. However, he didn’t make much impact on his environment question – I guess the Tories and environment caring, sharing are still not believable even with that nice David Cameron saying he agreed with Tony Blair on this and education.

Tony B pointed out to the Notting Hill Prince that if he agreed with it all – he had better vote for it and the budget to fund it. They were both well-behaved – which personally I found quite refreshing. However, I suspect that the Tories agreeing with Tony Blair and the Government line is a one trick pony. Tony Cameron can’t say that every time he speaks – it just won’t ring true or (I suspect) be deliverable. Still an adequate start. Style 8 – content 3!

Now Charles Kennedy, on the other hand, asked a stonkingly good question on Extraordinary Rendition (that’s the American policy of picking up suspects around the world, and flying them off on secret flights to secret locations with no trial, no legal representation and no accountability). Charles put Tony B on the back foot for not knowing what he was talking about and not telling Jack Straw – anything! And this is what question time should be about – serious stuff.

Dash back to my office to do an interview with the Westminster Hour to go out Sunday night on Cameron and what it means for the LibDems. Pontificate – but the truth is – who knows fopr sure … yet!

Last port of the day is attendance at St Andrews Church in Alexandra ward to see the local amateur dramatic society perform three plays. This is their last outing after 81 years – as the Church is renovating (lottery money) and is taking away their storage room and the stage which will make it impossible to go on. Such a shame. I don’t quite understand as when I visited the Church recently to look at the plans for the renovation I thought they had built in storage for the theatre company and I didn’t remember the Vicar saying that they would have to go. Must write and ask if any chance of them staying – somehow.

The production was very professional. I used to do a fair amount of am / dram myself from the age of about 9 until about 22! It took me back to those days. And as I have been told that ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ I obviously found an alternative outlet for my thespian aspirations.

Northern Ireland

Still not quite myself – but hurl up to Parliament to be at Home Affairs Team meeting followed by Prime Minister’s Questions. Very lack lustre today on all sides. Think House is depressed by death of the policewoman to whom all pay tribute. Is Tony just draining away?

At lunchtime I meet with some associates from Enfield about the proposed closure of Chase Farm Hospital’s A&E facility as it will have a knock on effect for us in Hornsey & Wood Green as some patients will then crowd into the North Middlesex and so on. Three hours then of reading and signing.

The debate today is on Northern Ireland and there are feelings running high with the Government’s proposals to let go those who are suspected of murders but were not convicted. Lembit Opik, who is our Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland was to be leading for us in the debate, but shockingly his brother died the night before of a heart attack aged 37. We are all really upset for Lembit – who actually does turn up to speak during the debate very bravely. He says he feels it is so important that even with the tragic personal event he wanted to come and have his say, and return to his family.

In the evening – we the Lib Dem intake of 05.05.05 (called the 555 Group) are having dinner with Charles Kennedy. But – it was private!!

My bathing costume

I pass Simon Hughes on route from one part of Commons to another – and as he passes he turns and says ‘loved your review’! As he had a wicked grin on his face and I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about – I asked my Head of Office, Andrew, to find out.

It turned out to be a column by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail writing about Parliament yesterday. I quote:

“A less generous eye might have fallen on the blinking figure of Charles Clarke, stretched so hard at the Home Office in recent days.

“It might hover, too, over the currently reduced form of Charles Kennedy – not to mention the outfit of a glamorous new Lib Dem MP called Lynne Featherstone, who was wearing an outfit that resembled a bathing costume.

“For spectacle Miss Featherstone’s top was matched only by an extraordinary, glowing object halfway down the Government front bench. This turned out to be the sunburnt bald head of John Reid, Defence Secretary.”

I desperately try to think about the decency of my attire the previous day. I was pretty sure that, although I didn’t wear my usual combination of dark trouser suit with jacket and white T-shirt, I hadn’t entirely lost the plot and worn a swimsuit. I had indeed, although unusually, worn a dress – it was a sweltering day. But to me – it was my formal summer dress (grey and discreet) – and although it has no sleeves and is not high cut at the neck, it is virtually knee length and very respectable. I remember wearing it with its matching coat to meet the Queen when she opened City Hall.

When I was young, I used to get upset at such comments – or indeed – wolf whistles as I walked past building sites. Now at my advanced age – I am simply grateful. Thank you Quentin – I say!

I stick around for the Tory Opposition Debates in the afternoon and evening – but there is an ‘incident’. On the information screens around Parliament, moving text along the bottom informs us that entrance to the Commons is barred to all for the time being because of an ‘incident ongoing’.

David Heath whispers to me in the chamber that the story doing the rounds is the police are chasing a suspected bomber along the South Bank – no idea if that was the case. My pager goes saying because of the incident there are no votes tonight – so I go home around 9pm. I get home around 9.50pm at which point my pager goes again informing me that votes are expected at 10pm. Well – I can’t get back quite that quick! Next day Whips apologise for the cock-up.

Development in Wood Green

Meeting with Charles Kennedy who is seeing us new kids on the block. Again a good meeting with lots of ideas and good humour. Charles seems very happy with his new intake.

Then back to the constituency (glad I’m a London MP!) for a meeting (“Development Control Forum”) on a proposed development in centre of Wood Green. It is revolting. There is no other way to describe the design – insensitive, unrelated to the buildings around it, ugly, poor materials and so on.

The residents attending gave the architects what for and then some. Three members of the planning committee were there – so hopefully they noted not only the adverse comments of everyone in the room but also the genuine planning objections that could rise from them.

The Mayor’s London plan was often sited as the reason they had done this or that. But it’s not much of an excuse. The London Plan at least aspires to good and sustainable design – it doesn’t demand cramming nor ugliness nor lack of appropriate infrastructure.

Kennedy visits

Charles Kennedy comes to Hornsey & Wood Green! Visiting Weston Park Primary School on – incidentally – the 10th anniversary of the school council, who had democratically chosen questions to ask him.

Charles swept in – but on the way stopped to talk to Sue Hessel from the Save Red Gables campaign group, which we support. Hope that adds to pressure – then in to the school.

Whilst the original plan was for Charles to meet ten children, we decide with the head, that it wouldn’t be fair to have CK in school and for the other children not to have even seen him. So we go into every classroom to say hello. Good morning Charles Kennedy – they say. So sweet.

Then into the room with the School Council who ask a question from each class. ‘What will you do if you don’t get picked?’, ‘How will you save pandas?’ and ‘What is your favourite food?’

Charles handled it all really brilliantly – good balance between substantive answers but put in a friendly way without being condescending.

Then after about 20 minutes the children went back to their lessons and the media had their way with him. ‘Why had he come to Hornsey & Wood Green?’ Well – there’s an election … and we can win here! That’s what leaders do – turn up in top target seats! One journalist asked what I would do that the current Labour doesn’t? Charles immediately referred her to the Evening Standard poll of London MPs where LibDem MPs took first, second and third place for hard work etc. Then the leader’s tour sweeps on to the next seat and we get back to our normal campaigning.