PoliticsHome | Only the latest five entries on the PhiWire are visible to non-subscribers
- Sign up to see last 24 hours
Dont have an account?Sign up here
Thursday 21st June 2012 | 20:01
Imagine the scene. It’s 2017. The nation’s great and good have gathered at St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate the Queen’s 65th year on the throne, with Westminster’s representatives led by the Labour Prime Minister Ed Miliband and his Liberal Democrat deputy Simon Hughes.
Pure fantasy perhaps, but at the Jubilee celebrations earlier this month the scene was inadvertently dress-rehearsed as Miliband, his wife Justine, and Hughes set off together from the Jubilee service at St Paul’s for a celebratory lunch at the Guildhall.
Over a rather more modest sandwich-based meal in the Houses of Parliament, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader recalls the journey.
“We were the first dignitaries going to the Guildhall reception to leave after Boris [Johnson] and his wife. On the ten-minute walk, or whatever it is, I was chatting to Ed and Justine, who I didn’t know well before, and arrived at the Guildhall. Within about five minutes a Cabinet member came over and said: ‘Simon, I hope I don’t see a deep and meaningful conversation with the leader of the opposition on the day of the Jubilee celebrations’, to which I said: ‘they were entirely social and general political conversations….’”
Hughes laughs at the memory of the conversation, adding: “But we were leading the way from St Paul’s to the Guildhall – and I hope I can always lead the way, one way or another.”
Back in the reality of the Lib-Con coalition, rather than the fantasy Lib-Lab one, Hughes has stuck to a largely on-message support of his party’s partnership with the Conservatives while also retaining his status as the outspoken darling of the grass roots. However, reports that Hughes has opened channels with senior Labour figures have excited some disgruntled Lib Dems.
He insists that there has not been “anything that is even as formal as an informal discussion” with Labour, even if there “are always conversations between us and colleagues in all parties”, but he has welcomed less hostile relations with Labour.
“The reality is, I think, Ed [Miliband] has softened a bit. He must know two things: a) He must know that the next election will absolutely not be a shoo-in for Labour under any circumstances and b) he must know that if, by any chance, the referendum in Scotland were to be lost for the unionists, [then] who would be the biggest victim but Labour? Labour would effectively be condemned to be out of office, probably forever. I think he realises he needs to work with those of us with whom there is a common interest, as in Scotland. I think Labour, some of my Labour friends, realize that, and actually on lots of thing they realise that we’re doing things either that they didn’t do or they wished to do. We’ve got to prove ourselves. We got to show that the green agenda works, that we’re credible. We’ve got to show that the health reforms are not the disaster Labour said they were. We’ve got to restore our credibility with them.”
It’s a pitch to left-leaning Lib Dem voters, but it could equally be seen as a concerted effort to woo the Labour Party.
“We will not be a strong, radical, progressive, non-Conservative party if we don’t have policies that appeal to and attract people in seats like mine. And not just in seats like mine, because actually in the seats we win from the Tories, we win partly because people from the Left support us” he continues. “The strategy cannot be to say Labour must be handed all those people on the plate. I think the party realizes we have to have policies that will appeal to Labour voters as well as to Tory voters, and if we do that then by definition Labour are going to be more sympathetic towards us because they’re going to see that actually we suddenly haven’t gone off into the right wing wilderness and deserted all our principles.”
Hughes also knows that informal talks on how the Lib Dems exit the coalition – “I mean, obviously people have started talking about it” – will soon move into the open.“The implications of the deal was that we see it through for five years, but obviously there may be an interest in both sides being seen to be less connected in the run-up to the General Election. Party colleagues may want that, but we haven’t had that conversation. Those are the sort of conversations that would logically start after November when we get half way through this parliament.” Until then, he is determined that the party must show that it is “strong and determined and we’re in the Premier League… we at last have shown that we can be in government.”
Hughes knows that 2015 is a long way away and that right now the eurozone crisis dominates British politics and economics. He says that pro-Europeans like himself are ‘rightfully alarmed’ at the daily and weekly instability. But on the big issue of an ‘in-out’ EU referendum, he says “the big question is not going away out there. The continuing demand to have a date, when we decide whether we want to stay in or out, will remain. It is our party policy, it remains our party policy. I guess we will need to resolve this in time for the Euro elections of 2014.”
So it will be in the Lib Dem manifesto for 2015 too? “I think it is better to ask that uncomplicated question than a complicated question. We ought to resolve in the foreseeable future again that we are going to be part of Europe. Not least so that our European partners understand that, the world understands that. There is a danger that if we are not seen to be enthusiastic Europeans then a lot of the jobs in the financial services sector and the City may ultimately drift over the water to Frankfurt and Berlin and Paris if we are not seen to be central to the European financial project.”
Of course, England is still in Euro2012, if not the euro. And with lots of his South London constituency draped in St George’s flags, Hughes says English devolution offers a way of making Europe more palatable.
“I’ve always thought that something that would help us make the case for Europe would be to beef up a sense of English identity here and deal with the devolution to England question.
“Work is being done to resolve that. If we could get MPs from English seats voting on English only issues then actually that would be very positively helpful for working class constituencies and communities like mine, who sometimes feel ‘we get shafted all the time’. They would argue, ‘we subsidise Scotland, we subsidise Wales, we subsidise Northern Ireland. They get a larger number of MPs, they get extra layers of Government, they have their own decision making power, we don’t’. So if we could deal with that, that would help remind people in English seats you can have strong local identity – Bermondsey, London – you can have strong national identity – England – still be unionists, with a UK identity, and also be part of the wider world. It’s where the Tories and we have quite a common agenda.”
And although Hughes is proud to be grounded in his constituency, he has long had an interest in international issues. The co-chair of the All Party Group on Conflict Resolution, he says finding a diplomatic solution for Cyprus is one of his key foreign policy hopes. “I’ve just been there to the north, rocking a few boats because [diplomatic progress] had got stuck. And it needn’t have got stuck. The messages were surprisingly encouraging. We are four fifths of the way there and I hope we can make a bit of a contribution.
“I’m writing my report now. I shall give it to the PM, the DPM, the Foreign Secretary and the Europe Minister, to the EU and the Secretary General’s office. It requires Britain to be as strong in leadership. [Resolution of the dispute] would be great for Cyprus, it would be great for relations with Turkey, which is obviously really important for trade. If by the end of this Parliament, if I had helped contribute to a peaceful settlement in Cyprus, I would be very pleased.”
Back home, it is the hotly disputed territory of Lords reform that is a focus for fresh Tory backbench discontent. Hughes says “I am really clear that we mustn’t be seen to be spending a ridiculous amount of time on this”, and knows deadlock is a threat.
“How do we avoid that given the forces of Conservatism in the Lords? The answer is you try to set out something that reasonable Tories and the PM and his colleagues can deliver. For me, I don’t think the country wants a referendum on Lords reform. What we ought to be able to do is put the bill on the table and then see whether we can get a majority for going down that route in a way that is not going to then become in the Commons a battle of attrition.”
Hughes says: “What we have to come out with as a minimum, for me, is something that ends the hereditary peers and something that starts the process. It was only ever going to start in this Parliament, it will go on in the next Parliament. If you could get an agreement that the first tranche of people is going to be elected in 2015, actually Parliament can come back to the timetable for the other stuff later. Let’s try and be reasonable. You can’t justify an hereditary- and patronage-based second chamber.”
Hughes is unimpressed by Tory MPs who cite a lack of Lib Dem support for the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as a reason to oppose Lords reform. How widespread is the view among Lib Dem MPs that they may kill the boundary changes if the Conservatives kill Lords reform? “The final judgment will, to be honest, be made when we see the final proposals. But Parliament does have to vote for the final proposals, so it is of course open to us as it is open to any MP [to vote against them]. And it’s not only Liberal Democrats who are nervous that the final proposals may not be fair and reasonable, there are plenty of Tory MPs who also may not like the shape of the final package. So, that is not a done deal. We’ve agreed to change the law, we’re having more evenly sized constituencies but Parliament will retain the final right to say this is or isn’t the right solution.”
Hughes stresses that “the Hunt stuff was obviously nothing to do with the Coalition agreement”. And on the wider issue of media regulation, he is firm that the Leveson Inquiry’s recommendations must translate into legislation. “The really important thing is that when it finishes we don’t drop the ball, we don’t go cold on the proposals to reform the relationship between press, and parliament, the politicians and the police. The danger is that either of the other big parties might become less enthusiastic than they were last year, and our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen”, Hughes argues, calling for legislation in the next Queen’s Speech to be passed by 2015. “We’ve got to make sure we deliver, and we keep on saying to the DPM [that] we must reserve a slot in the legislative programme for next year  to make sure that any Leveson recommendations can be implemented.”
The Lib Dem deputy leader clearly enjoys being able to cajole and criticize from his role outside of the government, but after nearly 30 years as an opposition MP would Hughes not prefer to seize the chance of ministerial office? “I lose no sleep about it”, he replies, before again suggesting that the post-2015 political landscape is on his mind. “There may also be advantages at the next election, I guess, for those of us who weren’t ministers. They can say: “Oh, nothing to do with us, all the fault of ministers, don’t blame me.’ So I can see some positive advantages...”
However uncomfortable the fit, he also sees the positive advantages of his party being in power today, but Simon Hughes already has the future in his sights.
Hughes on... the draft communications bill
“If we cannot get a bill that protects people’s liberty and if the proposals remain too intrusive, we will veto them. We have to be prepared to be clear on those sort of things.”
Hughes on... being offered a knighthood
“I haven’t been offered one and I haven’t turned one down. I have never really thought of myself as being so much of the establishment that I would enhance my own position in Bermondsey by having a knighthood... they prefer their politicians to be of the people.”
Hughes on... the Budget
“We fought right to the end to try to persuade the Tories that actually this was not the right thing to do [dropping the top rate of tax]. The local election results in May showed that this year they paid the price, just as last year we paid the price.”
Be briefed for £1.50 a week...PoliticsHome PRO Find out more