This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics
As a party, we’re different. We have to operate differently.” Alistair Carmichael, a man with the unenviable dual job description of Liberal Democrat chief whip and deputy chief whip for the coalition, is describing the difference between his and his Conservative counterparts’ disciplinary tactics.
“The success of the government whips’ operation to date has been [due to] an understanding that we run our things in the way that we run them, and the Conservatives run things in the way they run them, and we don’t try and force these approaches and standards on each other.”
The MP for Orkney and Shetland attests to taking a softly-softly approach, an attitude far removed from both our perception of what constitutes a chief whip’s vocation, and from the Conservative and Labour parties’ take on such a calling. No snarling threats in the early hours or unseemly public evictions from the parliamentary estate with him, then?
“I would say the difference between us and the other two parties in this place is that we can get to a position of unity. In fact, it’s much more important to be able to persuade a liberal, because you’ll not easily coerce them,” he explains, with resignation and a glimmer of affection, “and when you understand that, then you understand that the heavy-handedness for which whips, rightly or wrongly, are famous is just not going to work.”
So, what exactly are his methods? He must have to prey menacingly from the shadows occasionally?
“The way in which we run the whips’ office here is a good example of the difference. The Liberal Democrat Whips’ Office in Westminster is Lib Dem-central for the whole of the House of Commons. People will come in, and every MP’s got a pigeon hole here. They know the staff outside, and my door is generally open if they want to stick their head round the door, shoot the breeze.”
“If you’re a Labour or a Tory MP, you really only go to your whips’ office if you’ve got a reason to go there.”
And almost as if it were planned, I see this for myself 40 minutes into our interview, as Carmichael scampers off to the chamber for a vote, and I’m left alone in the Lib Dem Chief Whips’ Office with the other half of his Kit Kat he’s given me to keep me occupied (there were “no Clubs”, his intern told him apologetically). Almost immediately, Tessa Munt MP marches straight into his office, no knocking, and, seeing it whipless, recommends merrily for me to “give him shit, I say” before making her exit.
But creating a welcoming Lib Dem meeting hub can’t be the only method used by one of Westminster’s most powerful ‘enforcers’. Carmichael admits that he often has to compromise in order to keep his MPs onside, something forced by the unusual scenario of a coalition.
“A lot of the time, the job is persuading people to do things that they’d rather not, in normal circumstances, do. And sometimes you realise a person is never going to take the government line, and there’s a touch of light and shade required.”
“It can be more important to allow them their head from time to time, while still keeping a good relationship with them.”
In his view, the “ace” he can play in this circumstance is that “we all went into this together”, because once the interminable, 11th-hour meetings of the coalition agreement were complete, his MPs “overwhelmingly voted for it”. He observes a “sense of ownership” in his party and back benches, which he admits David Cameron does not have:
“The difficulty he [Cameron] has is that his internal party process was one that didn’t have the buy-in from his own backbenchers, from votes and discussions, like we did when we set up the coalition.”
Despite his cosy informality with his party, Carmichael sums up his role in business-like terms: “To my mind, the Whips’ Office is about delivering government business and being professional in office. I try to be professional by getting everybody to agree, and if I can’t do that, it’s about managing the disagreement... Above everything else, professionalism should be the watchword in any whipping operation.”
An interesting analysis, considering the coalition’s new and precariously-placed chief whip Andrew Mitchell, and his less than professional conduct in September.
Carmichael is immediately sympathetic about his now infamous colleague: “I speak to Andrew all the time. Throughout his current difficulties, it’s very important that we should still be able to work together,” he tells me, rather guardedly. “On a personal level, it’s a very difficult time for him and, knowing the press as I do, I’ve no doubt there’ll be a lot of pressure on his family. But he’s still in there.” [At the time of writing, Andrew Mitchell retained his position].
And is it a surprise to Carmichael that he’s still in there, as it is to many incredulous onlookers? The atmosphere suddenly becomes more awkward than trying to exit Downing Street with a bicycle and a sense of entitlement.
“You’re tempting me to talk about a relationship between colleagues that even in good times I wouldn’t really talk about,” he warns, but then admits, “You have to think that after this length of time the betting would be on him remaining in office. But it’s entirely up to him and the prime minister.”
He meets the Conservative whips’ team every day of the week parliament is sitting, and they are studiously supposed to keep each other informed of their respective difficulties. Their golden rule for making the system work is ‘no surprises’, although Carmichael jokes that this can sometimes be intuitive: “I know that anything involving the words ‘Europe’ or ‘human rights’ is probably going to be tricky handling for the Conservatives, whereas that’s a fairly easy sell for the Liberal Democrats.”
Carmichael reveals the most difficult instances of coaxing his MPs into toeing the government line: “NHS reforms were very difficult, the Welfare Reform Bill was very difficult…” He pauses, grim-faced: “Tuition fees was a day that I don’t want to live through again.”
But even here, he suggests that he tried “as far as possible to maintain a degree of respect and never to burn bridges, because we’re going to be back here next week, dealing with issues again, so you try not to trash that relationship.”
It seems his crises of conscience are most acute when it comes to his far-flung constituency, which he has represented since 2001. As with the work of his predecessors there, Jo Grimond and Jim Wallace – Orkney and Shetland is one of the safest Lib Dem seats in Britain – the deputy chief whip is known as very much a constituency MP on a national stage.
A glance at his campaigns while in office shows a strong connection to Orkney and Shetland life, and to similar communities: boosting broadband for the Highlands and Islands, for example, and reducing fuel duties for those reliant on cars in isolated areas.
The way he campaigns for his constituency now, rather than how he did in opposition – debating, asking questions and tabling EDMs – is to put his argument to the relevant government ministers and officials, often making his point in letters.
“It’s not a case of special treatment; you still have to write the letters – your letters are seen differently and treated differently, although it’s not a question of cutting some sort of backroom deal. You’ve still got to make the argument, but as a government minister, you’re very well placed to do that.”
A whip opposing his own government on constituency issues sounds rather improbable in Westminster’s bubble of inward-looking parliamentary big hitters, but Carmichael has taken on his partners in collective responsibility this way and won.
“Some big issues have hit my constituency as a result of the cuts the government has to make,” he explains. One was the proposed closure of the coastguard station in Shetland, and another the proposed removal of a tug (an “emergency towing vessel,” he kindly translates for the layman, unprompted) and he fought these and won by “arguing the case within government, and using the access I have to ministers and officials as a government minister myself, to achieve an outcome that was what my constituents wanted.”
Carmichael has a knack for making it all sound so simple, with his articulate yet straightforward manner of explaining things, but he admits to feeling uncomfortable when government proposals run counter to his conscience.
“You can sometimes feel torn. And when the proposal is first made, it’s very difficult - you do genuinely feel conflicted,” he confesses. “Fighting their [his constituents’] corner while staying within the confines of collective responsibility, and then explaining it all, is trickier [than opposition campaigning].” He also thinks he’ll take a hit votes-wise because of his place in the coalition, but, ever understated, he smiles: “I’ll live with that.”
However, the deputy chief whip hasn’t always been so disciplined. In 2008, he resigned from the front bench as shadow Northern Ireland and Scotland secretary so that he could rebel and vote in favour of a Lisbon Treaty referendum. He highlights that he did this primarily for constituency reasons involving fishing rights, but is there still a trace of a rebel in him?
He does look rather wistful when he describes it as “the easiest thing in the world to strike the pose, to say, ‘I’m ideologically pure and everybody else has compromised and sold out’.”
But just hours before our interview, Theresa May had made her statement blocking the extradition of Gary McKinnon, and Carmichael reflects on this achievement – something he had campaigned for in opposition, as well as ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. “Actually, no,” he affirms, “I’ve achieved a lot more in government by holding my nose and sticking to a coalition agreement that I signed up for than I would by striking a pose... and that’s part of the growing-up process the party has had.”
Perhaps this attitude, coupled with his popularity within and without his party – he is known as a joker, and tells me that off-colour jokes are his “stock-in-trade” – is what has made him such an effective government whip. He manages to marry coalition work with his ardent liberalism. His favourite song is Supertramp’s The Logical Song because of the line, ‘Watch what you say/now they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal’.
“I think,” he grins, “that’s the company that liberals should be in, the radicals, the fanaticals - maybe not the criminals. But liberalism shouldn’t be about the safe option, it should always be a risky thing to take on.”
His liberalism comes clearly from the heart as well as being a political position; he admits to “feeling quite emotional” during the McKinnon statement today. There is also a ‘Free Troy Davis’ poster on his wall, referring to a prisoner on Death Row he visited who has since been executed.
And the Orkney resident and Scotsman has a strong, personal bond to Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom; he has two sons with his English wife Kathryn, and doesn’t want their ancestors to be consigned to a foreign country by Scottish independence. In September, he was appointed deputy Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, and sees the position as an opportunity to deal with the imminent Westminster/ SNP tensions.
Although he praises Cameron and Scottish secretary Michael Moore’s recent negotiations with Alex Salmond as “exceptionally effective”, he does concede that, “as a Scot, I would rather have seen it [the referendum date] sooner rather than later.”
Another, more significant, recent policy disappointment was the failure of Lords reform – “I fought the Lords, and the Lords won”, was his resounding conference punchline.
In light of this, he is sure of his strategy for the potential boundary review: “The boundary review is quite simple. We’ve said that this is no longer government policy... when it eventually comes to a vote, we shall vote against it. And on that basis, my expectation would be that the changes won’t go through.” Fighting talk, but he does stress that “it’s a position I would rather not be in”.
He also hasn’t given up on Lords reform, calling it an “historic inevitability”, asserting that “we will win eventually” on the issue: “You’re challenging privilege and patronage in politics, which I revel in, because it’s part of what got me into politics.”
A young Carmichael, born and brought up on the Scottish island of Islay, joined the Liberal party at just 14. Although he came from a household that would discuss politics and listen to the news every evening, at the time he felt like “the only 14-year-old in the world who was interested in politics”, and had what he calls a “very traditional West Highland upbringing”.
His father was a hill farmer, and his mother a nursery nurse before it came to bringing up her own children.
What, then, does he think of the cabinet’s markedly homogeneous and privileged background? He doesn’t see it as relevant, testament to his ability to work with anyone in politics, but does “worry a bit about the fact that there are an awful lot of people in politics now who have only ever worked in politics; that’s not particularly healthy.”
Carmichael himself started off as a waiter, scrubbing pots, and went on to be a hotel manager and then a solicitor, “... going to see drunks in cells at 2 o’clock in the morning”. He suggests this experience gives him “a better empathy and understanding” than those who have only ever been in politics.
Like Ed Miliband, I posit. This brings us on to the prospect of the Lib Dems forming a coalition with Labour in the event of another hung parliament.
Before facing this scenario, he insists the first challenge for the Lib Dems is to boost their popularity by “[reminding] people why we have to do it, just how serious the situation facing the country was, and to be able to identify the value that we add to being in government, the difference that we make”. He admits, however, that they have lost the “people for whom a coalition with the Conservatives is total anathema”.
He calls Nick Clegg’s recent tuition fees apology an “effective piece of politics”, but implies that he hadn’t felt wholly comfortable before it was released – “Of course I’m apprehensive, I’m chief whip. It’s my job to see the downsides of things... but ultimately he’s the leader and it’s his decision.”
And working with Labour? “I’m a Scottish Liberal Democrat; my party has been in government in Scotland for eight years with the Labour party... There are lots of Labour MPs that I’ve worked with on different campaigns in the past, and I’d have absolutely no problem with doing that again in the future.
“I believe in the collaborative style of politics,” he insists. “There is an immaturity that says, ‘Well, you’re in coalition with the Tories – that means you’re a Tory’. Like hell it does,” he roars. “If I was a Tory, I would’ve joined the Tory party.” Carmichael may crack the whip, but the maverick in him is very much alive.