The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The greyish pall over Westminster today

I wonder regularly, as I write these short pieces, whether the readers of The Telegraph can possibly find any great interest in such slight and potted pictures of British politics today as played out on the stage of the once omnipotent Mother of Parliaments in Westminster. If great orators still exist in the wings of that stage, they keep remarkably quiet. Excitement seems to whirl only about ministerial mishap and error; the scandals surrounding them and their lowlier cohorts; and endlessly divisive party quarrels. The tone is no longer raised by the thrill of political pyrotechnics recorded in historical records of parliamentary debates. Perhaps parliament really does matter less as time goes on, as its powers are dispersed to the regions and to the institutions of the European Union. Still one feels that the country would be enriched and its people delight in a powerful parliament of real character and real characters.

Hilary Benn, the secretary of state for international development, is one of the few genuinely interesting speakers today but we hear more of him outside the chamber of the House of Commons. I wonder if the public wit and intense irritation value, to all except the hard left, of his father, Tony Benn, lurks in his soul. He is a good speaker but the required gravitas of today allows little overt humour to appear. Really, that is the problem and the source of the greyish pall over Westminster today. It has become essential to be seen to be serious; fear of accusation of inappropriate levity and incorrectness has sucked all the sugar off the pill of parliamentary proceedings and off the wider British political picture.

Winston Churchill and his contemporary, F.E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, remain two of the best known and wittiest parliamentary speakers of relatively recent history; their predecessors are numerous. They are often attributed with others' and each other's bon mots, so well are they remembered for their wit. Of course, it is unlikely that Churchill's more concrete actions will be forgotten and neither was Smith a slouch in solid achievements, including secretary for India from 1924-28 in his portfolio. Nevertheless, it is with happy affection that they are remembered through such quotations as, from Smith, on Bolshevism: 'Nature has no cure for this sort of madness, though I have known a legacy from a rich relative work wonders.' Churchill's putdown to Lord Charles Beresford in the Commons might aptly and regularly be re-used today: 'He is one of those orators of whom it was well said, before they get up, they do not know what they are going to say; when they are speaking, they do not know what they are saying; and when they have sat down, they do not know what they have said.'

I would give my great, great, great aunt, Margot Asquith, the wife of the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith, the penultimate word. She was a notable if eccentric wit herself and no fan of Smith, of whom she said: 'Lord Birkenhead is very clever but sometimes his brains go to his head.' She is attributed with saying to Churchill: 'If you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee.' The last word is his, as his reply was: 'If you were my wife, I would drink it.'

So to the contemporary picture as the early stages of 2006 bring a lower level of levity amongst Liberals. As foretold, 'Chat Show Charlie' Kennedy has bitten the leadership dust; the demon drink has been summoned from his hidden bottle and given a suitable airing in the press through the good offices of every former alcoholic who retains the ability to string two sensible sentences together. A gathering weight of sympathy in the party rank and file was not enough to save Charles Kennedy. Even the most charitable must question the wisdom of alcohol holding sway in the decisions of a man who aspires to lead the country. A history of missed appointments and sickness does not inspire complete confidence, however nice the man himself.

Has there ever been so much of a merry-go-round of leaders of political parties in this country' The prime minister has, of course, been with us for a while, but, as we constantly await the final coup to depose him, we have no real sense of permanency in the Labour party. The Conservatives are delighted with the youthful image of their new leader but, in the event of another election lost, will he survive or follow his predecessors by ritually falling on his sword' Meanwhile, the Liberals swing between Ming Campbell, the experienced, and, some would say, old figure of Liberal Democrat gravitas; the worthy and, to my mind, rather nauseatingly smug Simon Hughes, president of the party; and the outsider, Chris Huhne, relatively unknown outside his immediate political circle.

Until Prime Minister's Questions last week, Campbell appeared to have it in the bag but his dreary performance opened the space for Hughes to enter the lists with a strong challenge. The waters are muddied too by doctrinal splits, endemic in all our political parties. Campbell is identified with failed attempts for a Liberal/Labour alliance after the 1997 election; a black mark with the young and ambitious who want the party to surge to success on its own pure credentials. It seems improbable, in spite of the advances of last year's election, that this will happen any time soon, whoever is leader and however badly the other two parties acquit themselves in the meantime.

However poorly Mr Campbell might have performed last week under the public, political and parliamentary microscope, he has the greatest credibility as a leader. No great new orator, I'm afraid, but glorious though it would be, that attribute is not in fashion. Instead Liberals would have the steady hands of an intelligent, experienced politician on the reins; a pro-European, who is determined to use the talents of the younger liberal members to the full. The relevance of his previous incarnation as a sprinter in the British Olympic team at Tokyo and holder of the British record for a number of years is uncertain but presumably record-holders are prepared to pull out the stops to win competitions. His later career as a barrister has not created a purveyor of the witty repartee of earlier legally-trained politicians but the law courts these days rarely ring with amusing aphorisms.

What do I know about Chris Huhne' Nothing at all, not even any gossip beyond his web-page. His credentials are impressive so far as service in the European parliament and his education go, but I have seen his 'message' on the launch of his leadership bid and I have seen his photograph ' well, I'm not sure. The message focuses on 'a radical green platform married with a commitment to economic competence and devolving power to local communities'. Nothing new there then and it does sound very worthy, if unlikely to set the country afire with enthusiasm. As there is much press coverage of British inability to recycle waste compared with the rest of Europe, he has a good point but it is regrettably likely to meet with a deep well of lassitude amongst electors.

Until last Thursday, there was a fourth candidate, the party's home affairs spokesman. Mr Oaten, came with a higher profile in terms of being seen more often on his feet in the House of Commons, but revelations of his secret relationship with a male prostitute have hit the party, and presumably his wife and two daughters, like a thunderbolt. He has now resigned altogether from frontline politics after admitting to 'errors of judgement in personal behaviour'. Poor fellow, surely he must have realized the Sunday tabloids would be scouring the dustbins for a hint of dirt ' perhaps he just is not very astute. The press now would do well to focus on his stupidity more than his sexuality, and the personal tragedy of his decision to close that cupboard door. He was relatively the youth contender, but still a year or two older than the sub-forty leader of the opposition.

The contemporary attraction for youth in our leaders has not yet thrown up another Pitt the Younger but his intellect was forged by a very different education system, and, while his workaholism would be applauded, his three-bottles-a-day port habit might be deplored. Simon Hughes holds the middle age ground in the Liberal forum and has a considerable record in human rights campaigning and long-term parliamentary activity. The former Liberal leader, Lord Ashdown, described him as 'charmingly vague', not exactly a ringing endorsement. I suspect though, in line with the slickness and perhaps the smugness too, a certain steely determination of purpose. Whatever happens in the leadership battle, Hughes will remain an important force in his party and have few concerns about retaining his role as one of the known faces of Liberal politics. It all sounds a bit of a bore, doesn't it'

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