Politics ought to be synonymous with good governance, but it’s not. It’s a game you have to play to get into a position where you can practise good governance. And politics doesn’t seem to have any room for the nuances and counterintuitive positions that make for good governance, as this week’s case of the Eastbourne Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd has shown.
Lloyd is a classic liberal hero. He can thank the NHS for the fact that he can hear anything – indeed that he’s alive at all – because it saved him when his hearing and his life were seriously threatened as a toddler. He therefore believes in public services through deep personal experience. He also mortgaged and remortgaged his house to allow him to fight the traditionally Conservative stronghold of Eastbourne. He failed to win the seat in 2005, won it in 2010, lost it in 2015, and won it back in 2017, all with tiny majorities.
The way he won it back in 2017 has sown the seeds of his decision to resign the party whip this week. Bear with me on the detail, because this is very important.
At the start of the 2017 general election campaign, Lloyd worked out that the fairest, most ethical and likeliest way he was going to win Eastbourne was to accept that the Brexit issue was over, and that despite his own views – he was an enthusiastic campaigner for Remain in the 2016 referendum – he would respect the referendum result. Eastbourne as a constituency had voted 57%-43% to leave, and he quotes voters who said to him ‘I’d happily have you as my MP but I voted Leave and if you’re our MP you’ll work to scupper Brexit in Parliament.’ He therefore made a pledge that if the government did a withdrawal deal, he would vote for it.
Viewed from today’s perspective, that pledge might be considered rash, and the ethics of promising something you don’t believe in are open to debate (a separate one). But the vantage point at the time was different. The prevailing narrative was that Theresa May had called the election because she knew she’d increase her majority, and the question was merely whether her post-election majority would be 30, 60 or even 100 seats. The idea that she might lose her majority seemed fanciful, and therefore Brexit seemed as good as done.
Since then, May has mishandled the whole process (not all her own fault), and Brexit is in serious doubt. Lloyd knows this – he’s still a Remainer, and fears for Britain if we leave the EU. But he made the promise, and he says he’s learned in politics that when you make a promise you have to stick with it.
He learned that by being a member of the Lib Dem group of MPs who voted for an increase in university tuition fees in 2011. The rationale behind it was reasonable: the party was using its influence in government to make David Cameron’s higher education funding proposals a lot less draconian for students than they were going to be. And the Lib Dems succeed to a large extent. But they had pledged in the 2010 election campaign that they wouldn’t put up fees; they were therefore pummelled for breaking that pledge (and their achievements in making the funding regime fairer were totally ignored), and the party was hammered at the 2015 election. Lloyd also saw Cameron make his ‘no ifs, no buts’ pledge not to build a third runway at Heathrow, a pledge Cameron just about held (simply because he’d made the promise) despite becoming convinced that there should be a third runway.
So Stephen Lloyd now finds himself one of 12 MPs of the most consistently anti-Brexit party in Parliament. He doesn’t disagree with Lib Dem policy, but he can’t support it with his parliamentary vote because of the pledge he made. This is the way politics works, so the most honourable way he saw out of the morass was to resign the party whip but not resign from the party. A neat solution or a tacky fudge?– it depends on your point of view.
But could he, even should he, have broken his promise? A friend of mine has developed a fine analogy: Imagine Stephen has taken his (fictitious) family out on a picnic in their car. His daughter has just passed her driving test, and Stephen promises her that he will let her drive home. The picnic ends, the daughter drives the car away with Stephen in the passenger seat and the rest of the family in the back. The daughter drives from side to side across the road and eventually begins to steer towards a cliff edge. The family beg Stephen to wrest the controls from his daughter, but he says, ‘No, I promised her she could drive.’ Has he not reached a point where he is absolved from the responsibility to keep his promise? In fact is keeping that promise unethical?
These are all fair questions, but they ignore the fact that politics is effectively run by the media these days. The sensible thing would be for Lloyd to use this analogy to explain why he can’t honour his pledge made in 2017, but he knows what would happen – it would simply get reported as a broken promise, with all the nuances lost, and give rise to a new wave of ‘Lib Dems break their promises’. And yet he is now being attacked by his own party members for being at odds with party policy when he isn’t – the nuance has got lost there too. And what about the nuance of the border line between the honour and integrity of keeping a promise and the obstinacy and stubbornness that cause intransigence?
Regrettably there is no room for nuances in politics. My only hope is that the liberal tradition has enough compassion and basic mediation skills left in it for enough people to realise that Stephen Lloyd’s case is a dilemma caused by the clash of two competing principles, and there may in fact be no villains in this story, contrary to what today’s world has come to expect.