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Friday, February 10, 2006

Question Time

11.15pm: So how does this live blogging thing work then? Question Time is on the TV, my ballot paper is sitting unfilled-in on the coffee table. Ming Campbell has just dodged the straight question as to whether he pushed Charles Kennedy towards resignation. I would have preferred a straight answer but that is something we have not yet had on this issue. All three candidates agree that Charles' legacy is invaluable and that he remains as popular as ever. However, we must move on. Chris Huhne empathises by finding an alcoholic relative. Simon Hughes gets a round of applause for looking forward to the time when Charles can come back and regretting the nature of his assasination.

11.20pm: Chris Huhne seems less sure of himself tonight than he was last week. Simon goes into the confessional about his judgement in the way that he handled the announcement of his own sexuality and then lists the campaigns he has been involved in and his acts of personal courage. He asks people to judge him on his record. Ming appears more at ease and more authorative than he did when I saw him at the Cardiff hustings on Monday.

11.25pm: Somebody in the audience tries to raise the Bermondsey by-election and is put down. At last we are onto some real issues - how can Britain withdraw honourably from Iraq? Simon Hughes emphases the illegality of the war and says we must pull out by the end of the year. The rule of law is paramount he says. Ming Campbell points out that UN resolution 1546 legitimises the present occupation. He wants to secure the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi Government before pulling out. We must work with the conditions on the ground instead of setting unrealistic deadlines, he says. I am sure this is contrary to what he has said in the past. Chris Huhne says Iraq is different because the illegality of the invasion has tarred us. We are part of the problem not the solution he says. His experience of business is that if you do not set a deadline it will not happen. Ming replies that it is not business - he is right. This is an issue that Simon and Chris cannot win on in this contest. Ming differentiates us from Labour by setting out clearly the conditions that need to be fulfilled so as to pull the troops out.

11.35pm: Question about the widest possible distribution of wealth. Chris Huhne wants to take people out of income tax altogether at the bottom and ensure those who are better off pay more. This is his issue and he tries to blind us with science. Simon appeals to the core Liberal vote by quoting the preamble to the Liberal Democrats constitution. He talks about people, about social justice and about how we can use the tax system to help them. This is vintage Simon, it is why he is able to appeal to so many people. He wants to stick to principles rather than listen to focus groups and gets applause for his point. Chris Huhne is moving around too much at the lectern for my liking. He is swaying. He re-emphasises his philosophy of fair taxation rather than high taxation. It is a bit glib to be honest. Ming Campbell goes back to basics and churns out the Orange book mantra of encouraging opportunity whilst pulling out some detailed anecdote about how investment in housing will help to put right injustice. Ming says that there is no future for the Liberal Democrats in being to the left of Labour. We are a centre-left party he says. Blair has squeezed values out of politics. We need to redress that. Chris Huhne agrees. He has a go at Cameron. Simon Hughes agrees. We must not have another right wing party.

11.45pm: My cat decides that it wants to take the place of my laptop on my lap. It settles for second best and sits on the arm of the chair instead.

11.47pm: Question about hung parliaments,. Ming backs Paddy Ashdown's judgement in talking to Blair in 1996-7. That will not please the activists. Chris Huhne says he has no fear of working with other parties but does not want to be a second-class Labour person or Tory. Wants to maintain our principles and not be distracted from our core message. Suggests that Labour and Tories might have more in common. He is trying too hard and coming across as strident. Ming sets down a test - if Queen's speech does not address key issues of health and education he will vote against it. No mention of electoral reform, he will be unpopular with some. Simon says our job is to reach out to people, maximise the number of Liberal Democrat MPs (in three figures, he says) and influence every vote. There will be no coalition until and unless we get a fairly representative Parliament. Our job is to deliver our policies.

11.53pm: Question about local Council. Ming points out that in Scotland we have PR, nobody points out that in Harlow we do not. Ming says we have achieved concrete successes in Scotland. Now we are discussing proportional representation, well half of the audience are Liberal Democrats after all.

11.55pm: Is experience of Parliamentary politics a help or a hindrance in running a political party? Dimbleby goes straight to Chris Huhne. Chris stresses his experience in the real world. Simon points out that he and Ming have also had lives outside politics. The length of time they have spent in Parliament does matter he says. Huhne has an effective reposte about him quizzing Ministers as a journalist. Ming however, takes Simon's point and builds on it. What is important is being able to judge the mood of Parliament he says. Simon talks about the growing gap between politicians and real people. He wants Parliament to be more representative of Britain. Ming says that energy, values and judgement are important. There is no room for caution.

12.00am: A member of the audience says that parties must work together to give us effective government. We do not need a succession of elections. Chris Huhne says that Parliament can work on an issue by issue basis. However, the European Parliament is not Westminster. Chris Huhne refers to the Yougov poll and claims to be the front-runner. He is not the one attacking the others he says.

12.05pm: What is your biggest mistake? Chris Huhne says how he misjudged the European Parliament. Ming says that he thought that reason would prevail in Parliament. He sets out his misgivings about the march against the war, he did not want to appear to be anti-American. Hughes says that party made a mistake in not having a core statement of values in 2005 General Election. He takes collective responsibility for that.

Overall impression was that Campbell and Hughes performed well. Huhne's inexperience counted against him. How will this impact on the election? Goodness only knows.

12.15pm: Switch over to News 24, the Liberal Democrats may have won the Dunfermline by-election. If they have, even if they have only run Labour close, it will be a momentous result. A leaderless party, supposedly in crisis overturning a 11,500 Labour majority? The party is clearly bigger than any one leader. Neither Labour nor the Tories can count on us self-destructing. Three party politics is here to stay.
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