Saturday, 21 September 2019


The official web-site of the International Churchill Society is pretty certain that one of WSC's more notorious epigrams ("Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat") is at base genuine, even though no direct attribution can be found. It was said to have been coined when the great man returned to the Conservatives after a golden period in the Liberal party when he and Lloyd George, aided by a young civil servant named William Beveridge, laid the foundations of the welfare society. That return was largely seen as opportunism at the time, the Conservatives' fortunes having been restored and the Labour Party's enjoying their first great surge in support at the expense of the Liberals. Indeed, this may have been a genuine spur to Churchill's estrangement from the party and, possibly, personally from Lloyd George. Churchill had a visceral loathing of socialism and could not tolerate the Liberals' co-habitation with Labour.

One cannot see much re-ratting to the Johnson Conservative Party on the part of the new recruits to the Liberal Democrats. There are no remaining traditional Conservatives around whom a revived party could coalesce. The once-proud successor to the party of Disraeli and Macleod has become, as Vince pointed out in his speech in Bournemouth yesterday, the English National Party.

So the reason for our new members' escape (or expulsion) from the "ENP" is clear, but the attraction of the Liberal Democrats is less so. Dr Wollaston was, from early on in her parliamentary career, obviously in the wrong party. Her initial loyal support of the government line on Brexit withered with her chairing of the Health Select Committee and her realisation, as the evidence rolled in, that a break with the rest of the EU would exacerbate the personnel shortages and the supply of some essential medicines. In other respects, her humanity was at odds with the growing power of the ERG. But the last two transfers-in seemed more problematic.

I am one of those nerds who rush off to UK-Elect (to check constituency voting figures) and to (for voting records) when a member of parliament changes status. What I read about Dr Phillip Lee disturbed me. On economic matters, he could kindly be described as a Gladstonian liberal. On civil rights, he stuck too firmly to his party's line. There might be the excuse of cabinet collective responsibility from 2016 on when he was a junior Justice minister, but not before that. He avoided votes on equal marriage and on enforcing Northern Ireland compliance with rights legislation which applies to the rest of the UK. Facebook friends also pointed out his proposed illiberal amendment to the 2014 Immigration Bill which would mandate testing of refugees for HIV. (Note that this was not in itself homophobic; although HIV is in the first world a problem mainly for the gay community, globally - and especially in Africa - it is predominantly a heterosexual disease.)

Sam Gyimah is certainly not homophobic. His voting on personal sexual relations is a model of liberalism, and he was punished by his constituency party in part because of it. On the other hand, he also followed the party line on other touchstone issues, including the repeal of the Human Rights Act.

The party's chief whip in the Commons, Alistair Carmichael, addressed these issues and others as part of the parliamentary report-back section of UK conference last Saturday evening. Alistair's readiness to answer questions, not only on the topic but also on the specific acquisitions, is what one has come to expect of a party dedicated to openness and honesty. There was plenty of razzmatazz when Shaun Woodward and Quentin Davies jumped ship, but I do not recall their conference querying Labour's acceptance of long-standing Conservatives. As to the Conservatives themselves, the last MP to move to them from another party was Reg Prentice, forty-two years ago. Prentice had been deselected by his Labour constituency party for his attempts to combat communist entryism. However, one was reminded yesterday of Sajjad Karim, who moved from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives when he found that he would not have the key first place on the Euro list for the English North-West in 2008. He clearly did not manage to make the Conservatives any more liberal as he recounted yesterday as part of the campaign against Islamophobia in the party.

Alistair emphasised that recruitment was a long drawn-out process of frequent conversations. Many more leads are followed than actually come to fruition. Lee had been quizzed about the Immigration Bill amendment. Incidentally, Dr Wollaston also signed this amendment, though she later withdrew her signature. His explanation was that it was only a probing amendment with no expectation that it would ever reach the statute book. Alistair also pointed out a liberal slant to Dr Lee's work at the Home Office in progressing measures to rehabilitate offenders. Finally, things have to be cleared with the local parties.

I had initial doubts, but having heard the chief whip's explanation my worst fears have been allayed. There are clearly still deviations from the Lib Dem norm, but that is only to be expected as the parliamentary party grows and they do not go to the heart of what we stand for. Certainly, I am far happier about these latest developments than I was about Emma Nicholson's "ratting", which seems to have been occasioned solely by the then Conservative Party's institutional misogyny. This has improved and I note that Baroness Nicholson quietly slipped back to her traditional home three years ago.

The natural political progression is from radical to conservative. Could our new recruits genuinely feel more liberal as they have matured politically? Well, there is at least one outstanding example of a politician seeing the light. When he first entered politics, John Bercow was a devotee of the Monday Club, that swivel-eyed collection of hangers, floggers and let's-beat-the-woggers. Now, he is virtually indistinguishable from a social democrat. As those who felt they were misfits in other parties adjust to their new Liberal Democrat family, I trust that our family values will be steadily absorbed.

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