Lib Dem MP Sir Bob Russell caused a stir – and a surge in Westminster sunglasses sales – at PMQs today by wearing a blindingly bright yellow waistcoat.
On closer inspection it seems Sir Bob was out to prove his loyalty, as the garment in question featured an embroidered Liberal Democrat logo peeking out from behind his lapel:
Those who were in the Chamber at the time reliably assure me he was wearing socks to match – leading more than one to wonder whether he went the whole hog and wore Lib Dem pants, too.
We must be told, though I’m not sure I want to know…
Wrestling with the growing Rennard scandal, I can’t imagine Nick Clegg was too pleased with the timing of his front page on yesterday’s Sunday Times magazine…
UKIP’s internal tensions have been obvious for some time. As the main party has gathered points in the opinion polls by picking up kneejerk reactionary positions on gay marriage and the burkha, the youth wing – Young Independence (YI) – has seen its own surge on the back of libertarian activism.
As I tweeted a month ago, after witnessing a debate on gay marriage between an old guard member and Olly Neville (a leading member of YI):
— Mark Wallace (@wallaceme) December 14, 2012
All parties – and the country at large – have that growing generational difference, particularly when it comes to the understanding of individual liberty. The test of their character is how they deal with them. And that’s where UKIP are now in big trouble.
In what some have inevitably dubbed the #Ollyshambles, Neville – who recently became the popular Chairman of Young Independence – was last night sacked from his post by the party’s leadership. His crime? He dared to disagree with them over gay marriage and on the idea that European Elections were more important than Westminster – both perfectly sensible positions for a libertarian eurosceptic to take.
So why should anyone care? After all, I hear you say, he was just the youth leader of a political party which has no Parliamentary representation. That’s true, of course, but the Neville affair does have some important ramifications for UKIP and for our wider politics.
Consider the context: UKIP are at 16% in the polls, widely touted as headed for first place in the 2014 European Elections and according to the Mail on Sunday set to deny David Cameron any chance of a General Election victory, all at a time when the EU is an increasingly important issue. Whether they convert their current polling into votes, and how they campaign matters a great deal.
The implications are numerous.
First, there’s the impact on UKIP’s effectiveness. The party’s youth wing had been signing up activist after activist from Conservative Future, based on its message of good humour and libertarian politics. That is now shattered, as the leading proponent of both is roundly duffed up. UKIP have already had resignations over the scandal, meaning they are losing energetic young activists as well as the gloss which an active youth organisation gives to a brand.
Then there’s the damage this does to UKIP’s message that it is a different kind of party, one that rejects top-down control and the enforcement of toeing the line. They have made great hay with this – look, for example, at the comments given by former CF Deputy Chair Alexandra Swann on her much-publicised defection to UKIP:
“As a member of Conservative Future, with no real power, I was monitored and forced to stick rigidly to the party line. The Tories stifle debate, and no one gets along, whereas UKIP encourage debate and they all get along fine.”
That sounded great for them at the time, but now rings extremely hollow. Small wonder Alexandra was looking rather uncomfortable on Twitter last night in the face of the news.
Given that the Conservatives allow MPs to break ranks on leaving the EU or opposing green taxes, while Labour keep Frank Field, Lord Adonis and plenty other outspoken rebels in their ranks, UKIP risk their anti-politics reputation by sacking people for simple disagreement.
Perhaps most serious for Nigel Farage is the impact this has on his own core messages about what UKIP believes. Time and again we’re told it is a libertarian party, and yet it seems that speaking your mind in favour of libertarian positions is a sackable offence.
The same goes for the question of who their leader backs or sacks. When Winston Mackenzie, the UKIP candidate in the Croydon North by-election, became the latest official representative of the party to say something horrendously bonkers by announcing that gay adoption was a form of “child abuse”, we were told that UKIP is a party that lets its people hold their own opinions.
As recently as Monday, Farage was on the Today Programme defending his troops from the Prime Minister’s allegations of oddness on the grounds that:
“…we’re eccentrics, and we tolerate eccentricity.”
So either it’s acceptable “eccentricity” to insult gay people, but unacceptable to suggest they should be allowed to marry, or this is an overnight change of position. If it’s the former, then that’s pretty horrendous. If it’s a change of position, presumably UKIP will now sack anyone who breaks from any policy at all. That would be awkward for them, given a) the tendency of their candidates and MEPs to do so and b) the fact that Nigel Farage himself has publicly gone on record as opposing their policy on drugs.
Next time (and there will be a next time) a UKIPper says something genuinely awful, how will Farage fight off the demands to sack him or her?
All in all, this is a pretty mess: young activists alienated, a libertarian and anti-politics reputation fundamentally undermined, and a total inconsistence with their own leader’s attitude to sacking and policy cohesion. Anyone acquainted with the history of UKIP will know that they are no strangers to arbitrary purges – indeed, they are probably the only political party with far more ex-members than members. It’s fair to say a return to that bloody heritage is not the road to political success.
2012 may have been UKIP’s year to party, but the Ollyshambles suggests 2013 may be the year of the hangover.
Whether you like the monarchy or not, you’ve got to agree that the Queen knows her job inside out. It’s hard to think of anyone who has a more natural, ingrained understanding of her role and the protocol that goes with it. Just witness her glance of disappointment when Barack Obama bungled things and talked over the national anthem last year.
So it’s fair to say she does not do things by accident when enacting her constitutional role.
There was a great example of this at her visit to this morning’s Cabinet meeting. As the camera panned down the table, two things were noticeable.
First, that she was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair. This is symbolic as well as polite – a reminder that the PM exercises many of his powers under Royal Prerogative, on the Queen’s behalf. She was visiting, so he gave up the chair to the person whose powers he exercises.
The second was that the Queen was sitting ever so slightly back from the table. Every minister had his or her chair pulled in to do business – she, though, was a few inches further back.
It is the tiniest thing, but far from irrelevant. It wasn’t chosen to enable a quicker getaway, or for leg-stretching room, but because it was part of her role in the room. In our constitutional monarchy, which has proved such a stable way of preserving democratic liberty against the tyranny of crown or dictatorship since 1688, the Queen was there to watch others exercise the powers of Government, not to govern herself.
She sat by the Cabinet table, not at it. And in those few inches of space lay 324 years of constitutional history – liberty preserved by the placing of a chair.
You won’t find an elected president in the world who is as classy as that.
It’s a commonly known fact that human DNA is 97% identical to orangutan DNA. It sticks in the mind because of the remarkable implication – that if you were to change just 3% of the basic code of you or me, we would be hairy tree-climbers, coveting little more than the next lump of fruit, rather than the remarkable, shoe-wearing, mostly literate creatures we are instead.
Of course, not everything works like DNA. Most things, in fact, can be subjected to proportionately small changes without ditching their metaphorical iPads and abandoning their commutes in favour of flinging faeces and clambering around the jungle canopy.
This is a subtlety that seems to have escaped the normally wise Douglas Murray over at the Spectator. Firing a broadside at Conservative Ministers who propose new development in the countryside, Douglas asks “Why are Conservative MPs so intent on wrecking our countryside?”
I have sympathy with some parts of his case. Greg Barker’s argument for wind farms – that they are sufficiently beautiful to become a tourist attraction – deserves scorn. As it happens, I’ve always thought that elegance of wind turbines is one of the few things the costly, ineffective installations have going for them, but it’s totally insufficient to justify spending a fortune scattering thousands of them nationwide to little environmental effect.
My problem comes with the Murray critique of Nick Boles’ proposals to build more houses on green field sites (which, please note, are different to green belt sites). For Douglas, Boles was “extolling the virtues of concreting over what green space we still have in order to tackle an alleged housing shortage”.
In reality, the Minister proposed expanding the area built on in Britain from 9% of our land area to 12% – an increase of 3%.
Does that extra 3% mean “concreting over what green space we still have”? Of course not. It doesn’t even mean concreting over that whole 3%, given the need for gardens to go with the houses. Even if it did mean Nick Boles taking his cement mixer on a road trip and personally turning 3% of the country from rolling pastures into a grey parking lot, would doing so truly “wreck the countryside”?
This is not liking changing Britain’s DNA. For a 3% change to make such a fundamental difference, Britain would have to be a human being – and a Britain where we would have sufficient houses to live in would be an orangutan. Which, fairly obviously, it isn’t.