The luxury of being in political Opposition is that you don’t have to worry too much about reality, which is a series of compromises, fudges and lesser evils. Being able to attack without needing to defend is safe and fun, if rather hollow. This is the biggest and bravest sacrifice the Liberal Democrats have made by going the whole way with the Coalition.
I tuned in to Thursday’s Question Time – a programme I usually shun because the audience is comprised of such self-righteous, self-selected, clap-happy fools – to see how the panellists would cope with the unusual circs, and it was interesting to note how badly Simon Hughes, representing the Lib Dems, performed. Eventually I decided that this was because he found himself in entirely unfamiliar territory. If Opposition is a luxury, think how it has been for the Lib Dems, revelling in Double Opposition, free to attack both Labour and the Tories at will and to adopt the kind of crazy policy (Euro, Trident etc) which has to be instantly ditched if Office and reality approach. Simon Hughes’s entire debating career has been spent as a sniper; now he found himself a target. The discomfort of novelty is the only kind excuse for his lame performance because the arguments were all on his side. Essentially Hughes faced a four-pronged attack. He should have trounced all comers but he was only comfortable dealing with the Labour representative, Lord Falconer.
The easiest prong to deal with should have been the idealist Lib Dem voters in the audience who accused him of ‘betraying their principles’ by joining with the Tories. This is twaddle and could have been countered by pointing out that in practical terms the Lib Dems chose the route that would mean having some (a surprisingly large amount) of their manifesto implemented rather than none of it. Of course practice never trumps principle for idealists so he should then have gone on to observe that the key principle of the Lib Dems is that consensus governments can work and that the interests of the country should not be sacrificed to score party political points in our rotten, confrontational system. Refusing to join a coalition on the grounds of principle would therefore have resulted in a self-defeating paradox and only a damn fool would even make such an accusation. Unfortunately the damn fool making it was a 17-year old politics student still young enough to think that ‘hypocrisy’ is something that matters – in other words, exactly the kind of person from whom Hughes has spent a lifetime extracting applause. In his confusion he made a hash of it.
The other two prongs were loonies of the left and right commentariat. Hughes could easily have played them against each other, but he didn’t and furthermore made the critical mistake, which surely no experienced Government representative would have done, of treating them seriously. Melanie Phillips, representing the loony right, described the coalition as a squalid stitch-up of self-interested parties. The correct method of dealing with her would have been a patronising tone, a dismissive wave of the hand and a ‘your cynicism says much more about you than it does about us, you old dinosaur’.
Slightly more of a challenge was someone called Medhi Hasan, speaking for the loony left. This man is, apparently, the political editor of The New Statesman. Dear me, what a prize prune he is. A ghastly applause-chaser, all witless punchlines and self-important table-thumping. Both stupid and sarcastic (the most irritating combination), never listening but always using the time in which others talk to plan what he’s going to say next. No argument or reasoning would have worked on this muppet, the only solution was to ignore him. Hughes made the schoolboy error of attempting to engage, and lost. He should have just let Hasan rant on and on until he got his applause, paused for ten seconds while it died down, and then opened with: “Anyway, back on Planet Earth…”
That, I’m sure, is how Chris Hitchens would have done it. The Lib Dems find themselves having to debate at a disadvantage for the first time in their political lives; they could do a lot worse than call the Hitch for some coaching.