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Alistair Carmichael MP writes…The truth about those “secret Tory talks”

July 5, 2017 8:07 PM
By Alistair Carmichael MP in Liberal Democrat Voice

Alistair CarmichaelA couple of weeks ago I was due to meet with one of my counterparts in the Conservative whips office. These meetings are routine and are not normally the subject of comment. This particular meeting was intended to deal with allocation of offices between the parties for MPs to use. In fact the meeting did not go ahead although I DID meet the Government Chief Whip's Private Secretary (known inside the bubble as the usual channels).

The meeting that did not happen (mundane though it was) somehow found its way into the Daily Mail who proceeded to speculate wildly about whether the meeting was indeed a sign that the Lib Dems were now cosying up to the Tories to stitch up a secret coalition deal.

Of course at that time the Conservatives were trying to negotiate a deal with the DUP, negotiations were going badly (due mostly to their own mismanagement). Briefing the press in this way was a mark of the desperation with which they were seized.

So when I read in the Times yesterday that Tim Farron's chief of staff Ben Williams had met with his No 10 counterpart Gavin Barwell last Thursday I took it with a pinch of salt. Not least because I knew that Ben was in Leeds on Thursday.

What actually happened was that on Tuesday in Portcullis House, the large shopping centre-style atrium on the parliamentary estate where MPs, staff, journalists and visitors mingle, get coffee, have informal meetings and things like that, Ben bumped into Mr Barwell, with whom he was previously acquainted. The conversation was polite, friendly even. They made small talk. They went their separate ways.

Reports of that meeting then somehow again found their way to the press - via Number 10 we believe - by which time the casual encounter was transformed into some kind of secretive quasi-negotiation about helping Theresa May's struggling minority government to pass legislation.

It was utter bollocks. Pointless, distracting and annoying bollocks. Are you getting the idea here?

Maybe it is just the heat of the Westminster summer or maybe it is the general uselessness of this minority Conservative Government and the people around it or maybe it is a combination of the two. Frankly I don't really care because it is still bollocks.

So don't believe everything you read in the papers. If you see a story like this then have a look at the Lib Dem Press Office Twitter feed. They are usually pretty sharp off the mark and to the point. On this point they made it pretty clear that the story was untrue.

Tim Farron made clear repeatedly throughout the election campaign that we would form no coalitions and do no deals of any kind to prop up either Theresa May's Conservatives or Jeremy Corbyn's Labour. Every single Lib Dem MP backs him and every single one agrees.

We will campaign for the policies we want to see - from putting a penny on income tax for the NHS and social care to lifting the cap on public sector pay, improving mental health services and holding a referendum on the final Brexit deal. Our job is to create the public and political pressure to make Theresa May's fragile government cave in on any of these issues - as they appear to be doing on public sector pay and as they did on Stella Creasy's recent amendment to allow Northern Irish women access to abortions in England - and we will work with people of all parties and none to achieve that.

We can all speculate as to why the Conservatives may feel the need to exaggerate the details of our encounters to the press - perhaps because they want to stop the DUP from getting too cocky by giving them the impression they could get support from elsewhere. It shows just how naïve they are. Away from the solemn moments for the cameras the DUP are laughing at them - laughing all the way to the bank, in fact.

Can we stop stories like this from appearing in the papers? Short of keeping all our MPs and their staff under twenty-four hour surveillance (something for which I am prepared to consider any properly made case), probably not.

Remember that the journalists who write these stories and those who own the papers that print them are not our supporters. They mostly supported the Conservatives at the general election. They were wrong then and nothing has changed since.

* Alistair Carmichael is the MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip.