What should Ming have done?

by Stephen Tall on June 21, 2007

I have to admit my first reaction to yesterday’s Guardian story – reporting that Gordon Brown and Ming Campbell had discussed Lib Dems taking up cabinet positions in Mr Brown’s first cabinet – was horror. Nor was I as convinced as fellow Lib Dem bloggers appeared to be that the story was nonsense peddled by shit-stirring Guardianistas.

As further details have seeped out – like a stranded oil-tanker leaching effluence – I’ve reflected a little more on the chain of events, at least as far I can trace them from the press reports, and thought: what would I have done if I were in Ming’s shoes?

Apparently, Ming and Gordon met on Monday, following a letter sent by the Lib Dem leader to explore further what our Prime Minister-in-waiting intends for his proposed constitutional convention. The party leaders do meet from time to time – as is quite proper – to discuss such matters behind closed doors. It was, let’s remember, following Ming’s meeting with David Cameron that the silly suggestion that Greg Dyke run for Mayor of London on a joint Lib Dem / Conservative-sponsored independent, anti-Ken ticket was first broached.

At their Monday meeting, Gordon raised with Ming the possibility of some senior Lib Dem peers – Lords Carlisle, Lester and Baroness Neuberger, for instance – taking junior ministerial roles. Now I guess Ming could have dismissed this out-of-hand, said it was absolutely impossible, no-go, no way. Perhaps, and with hindsight, it would have been cannier.

But it doesn’t strike me as that unreasonable for the party leader to want to think it over, to take soundings from others in the Lib Dems. This, it appears, is what Ming did.

And those soundings left him in no doubt that the Lib Dems would not contemplate any kind of approach from Gordon, which in any way smacked of ‘coalition’ – at least not until there’s a deal on the table which sees considerable progress towards achieving key Lib Dem policies.

It is characteristic of the love of hyperbole of Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, that he could describe these shenanigans on BBC Radio 4’s Today as “breaking the mould of politics in this country”. Nonsense. Ad hominem (or ad feminam) changes are inevitably temporary. Structural change – to our political institutions, our voting system, and so – is an essential pre-condition of any attempt to transform Britain’s political torpor.

The question then remains: who leaked these discussions to the press? I think it’s pretty clear it wasn’t the Lib Dems, as the party (including senior figures, like Vince Cable and Nick Clegg) were clearly caught on the hop.

So it was a henchman in Team Brown. This could be someone who wanted to kaibosh the deal. Or it could be a mischief-maker, keen to show-off Gordons ‘big tent’, and willingness to stretch out a bi-partisan hand – only for his endeavours to be snubbed by those petty partisan Lib Dems. Either way, it shows Gordon and his acolytes in a poor light, willing to sacrifice serious discussion of important issues in order to win a day’s headlines.

The lesson that should be drawn from this is quite clear: Ming cannot trust Gordon (or at least Gordon’s friends) to keep private discussions private. Which means any chance of a post-election deal between Labour and the Lib Dems is now an even more remote possibility than it was before.

Gordon may have scraped a battle victory by firing on the Lib Dems while our backs were turned. But he may not be smiling after the next election when he’s lost his majority.