or The story of the UK Liberal Democrats’ Leadership election so far

This is the second in an occasional series on the Liberal Democrats’ Leadership elections. There have been several developments about the candidates and nominations closed this week so I will go through these rather than go further into the policy differences in detail.

The nomination period has been notable because of the involvement of two Rupert Murdoch owned “red tops”, the Sun and the News of the World (NoW). Their muck raking has caused the withdrawal of one candidate and they have obviously been trying to bring down another
A quick language aside, “red tops” are the traditionally down market mass circulation tabloids. With most UK papers now printed in the tabloid (or slightly larger Berliner) formats,  “tabloid” is a bit defunct as it no longer distinguishes the serious, formerly broadsheet, papers like the Guardian or Independent.

The new LibDem Leader will go into the next General Election up against (probably) Gordon Brown for Labour and the new leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron. Cameron is a right-winger who is presenting his policy as left wing, as he is if you regard trying to steal Blair’s as moving to the left. Cameron is undoubtedly superficially attractive (young, son with cerebral palsy, well spoken) and is trying to steal back “reformist” (ie economically libertarian inclined) LibDems. He has already attracted one former LibDem candidate from the last General Election. With the LibDems as the biggest threat to the Conservatives, internal troubles are a bonus for them. Stoking up this trouble is of course what Murdoch’s chip-wrappers do best. The bonus for the fake American is of course that he will be able to claim influence over Cameron in the same way as he was sold Blair’s soul for support from the Sun (as in “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”)

Back to the candidates. One has pulled out just before asmear story appeared in the NoW. Mark Oaten was revealed to have been using a male prostitute on apparently a fairly regular basis and on one occasion is alleged to have hired the escort’s boyfriend for “three in a bed sex”. The particularly crude and unpleasant tenor of the piece can be judged from this extract:


  The rent boy, who was 23 at the time and operated from a squalid south London flat, told us: “I advertise on a website and Oaten called out of the blue.

The piece is full of references implying that Oaten used others without offering evidence other than that he visited this one a number of times over a 6 month period and without specifying when. One might well ask what the nature of the “squalid” flat was other than of course in NoW terms anywhere that non-marital sex occurs is “squalid”. One would have thought that by the nature of the business, a pleasant environment would ensure repeat business. We also do not know when the transactions occurred but it is likely to have been well before last year’s General Election. The hints are in the extract, “23 at the time”, and the pricing of £80. A quick skim through the review site that formerly had “Bulldog” Cannon’s details show this to have been the current price a couple of years ago, with £100 being the current going rate.

Oaten’s problem of course was that he had used his wife and family on his election publicity and had criticised a judge for using male prostitutes. This inconsistency rather than the actual action would have made his continued candidacy impossible. The Liberal party is after all no stranger to its leaders having errrrr… extra-mural interests. The 19th century Prime Minister Gladstone used to, as the running joke goes, toured the backstreets of London picking up “fallen women”. Of the past four leaders David Steel is positively dull.  Kennedy was known as “good time Charlie” not only for his alcohol problems but his regular and very funny appearances on game and chat shows. Paddy “Pantsdown” Ashdown had a well publicised affair with a secretary but it is Jeremy Thorpe whose story perhaps comes closest Oaten’s. He was tried for conspiracy after a bizarre episode on a moor in South-west England. The allegation was that Thorpe had asked a group of friends to “silence” a “male model” who had been demanding money from him. The wikipedia entry for Thorpe elaborates:

Persistent rumours about Thorpe’s sexuality dogged his political career, particularly in relation to an alleged homosexual affair with Norman Scott, a former male model. Scott claimed that he had met Thorpe in 1961 while working as a stable lad, and had a homosexual relationship with him between 1961 and 1963, at a time when homosexual acts were still illegal in Britain. Scott’s airing of these claims led to an enquiry within the Liberal Party in 1971, which exonerated Thorpe. Scott, however, continued to make the allegations.

In October 1975, while walking a friend’s female Great Dane (called “Rinka”) on Exmoor, Scott was confronted by Andrew ‘Gino’ Newton, a former airline pilot, who was armed with a gun. Newton shot and killed the dog, which had been loaned to Scott for protection, then pointed the gun at Scott, but it apparently failed to go off. The name ‘Rinkagate’ was subsequently given to the scandal.

Newton was convicted of the offence in March 1976. Scott used his Court appearance to once again air his claims of a relationship with Thorpe, alleging that Thorpe had threatened to kill him if he spoke about the affair. Scott also sold letters to the press which he claimed to be love letters from Thorpe, including the memorable line “Bunnies can and will go to France”. The scandal led to Thorpe resigning as leader of the Liberal Party on May 9, 1976


One of the current candidates has similarly had questions asked about their sexuality which NoW’s stablemate the Sun has been stirring. This time the victim, Simon Hughes stood his ground and has come out that he has had sexual relations with both men and women. He did this after having had to deny he was gay (strictly true) but this did not stop the Sun alleging they had proof that he had phone gay telephone chat lines under the headline “A second Limp-Dem confesses: I’m gay too”.   Hughes was first elected in a by-election where the Labour candidate was Peter Tatchell, a now well known gay rights activist. There was an anti-gay element in some of the campaigning though it should be said that the main reason for his losing was a classic “pavement politics” campaign by the Liberals combined with Tatchell’s highly unpopular extremely left wing policies and a completely corrupt and incompetent Labour local council. In his constituency, Hughes’ revelations are unlikely to cause the loss of his seat. Apart from the social advances since and the fact he has one of the highest majorities, the social mix has changed away from the staunchly traditional working class area it was formerly. How it will affect his leadership hopes remain to be seen. Early indications are that members are taking a “so what” attitude.

Part of the motive behind all these revelations are to detract from reporting the debate on policy issues. The examination of the policies of the various candidates and the publicity is thought to be te main reason for the surge in popularity of the Conservatives.

I have already introduced the Olympic runner Menzies “Ming” Campbell. His campaign got off to a disasterous start when he fluffed his first Prime Minister’s Questions as acting leader.

The “who???” is the final candidate, Chris Huhne. Although an MP only since the last election he was a member of the European Parliament since 1999 and is positioned on the “reformist” wing of the party but also has strong green attitudes. A fuller biography is on the BBC news site.

All three appeared in a special edition of the Radio 4 programme “Any Questions” on Wednesday evening. Links to that will be up later. At the moment I am not detailing policy as these can be found on the web, especially the BBC news site, but as you will see there have been developments outside of strict policy matters to diary on.

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