Rennie’s ram raid raised a laugh but his Lib Dems must be taken seriously
DENIS HEALEY famously described a Commons jeremiad from Geoffrey Howe as ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’. Willie Rennie has gone one better and managed to get himself savaged by a live one.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader was doing a photo-op at a farm in Kelty, Fife, last week when one of the rams took a dislike to him and charged. Thankfully, Mr Rennie sits next to the SNP backbenchers at Holyrood so he has some experience of dealing with sheep.
He was able to fend off the beast without injury to either side but not before the waiting photographers captured the scene for posterity and the Lib Dem Christmas party blooper reel.
It’s not even the North East Fife MSP’s most eye-popping animal encounter. During last year’s Holyrood election, he paid a visit to a pig farm and gave an interview to the BBC. What neither Mr Rennie nor the interviewer noticed at the time were the two swine in the background who, in a possible show of faith in the Lib Dems’ childcare policies, became rather too amorous in their pen. The video shot around the internet, shared by politicos, punters and no doubt some expats surprised by how risqué Dr Finlay’s Casebook had become in their absence.
Once upon a time, such pitfalls awaited all politicians but ever since the influx of spin doctors, pollsters and image consultants, elections have become crashingly dull. Theresa May is inviting journalists to campaign Press conferences but refusing to take questions. You’ve almost got it, Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, the teenage Trots who elected Blakey from On the Buses leader of the Labour Party are booing reporters for putting him on the spot. No wonder voters are fed up with elections when politicians campaign inside a cordon designed to keep ordinary people out.
That is what is so glorious about Willie Rennie’s electioneering style. None of that remote, snobbish arrogance is to be found. He couldn’t afford it – he needs to meet as many voters as possible and catch the eye of hacks obsessed with the SNP-Tory match on centre court.
Don’t mistake this for trivialising the serious business of choosing the next government; Mr Rennie has shown himchief self to be one of the most serious figures of the past five years. His party was severely punished for Nick Clegg’s coalition with David Cameron and when he took over the leadership he was one of only five Lib Dem MSPs.
It would have been easy for him to turn on his colleagues at Westminster and dance to the SNP tune of attacking the coalition. He refused, saying that he respected opponents of the alliance but believed the financial crisis meant putting country ahead of party.
When the independence referendum came along, he could again have chased popularity by backing a Yes vote but instead he became one of the most vocal defenders of the Union.
After the Brexit vote, this leader of a party for whom home rule and the EU are the alpha and omega came under pressure to soften Lib Dem opposition to separation. He faced it down, well aware it could prompt some of his members to defect to the Nats.
Since Mr Rennie took over he has repeatedly defied received opinion inside and outside his ranks and been vindicated every time. And despite having only a handful of MSPs, he is the parliamentary foe Nicola Sturgeon consistently underestimates to her peril.
On the routine deployment of armed police, stop and search, and the SNP’s failed China deal, he has made life difficult for a complacent and secretive government.
Observe how Miss Sturgeon squirmed at last week’s FMQs when the Lib Dem pointed out her Janus-faced positioning over the EU.
That’s Mr Rennie’s secret weapon: Tory leader Ruth Davidson brings volume and Labour’s Kezia Dugdale empathy but he has the deadliest skill of all in a royal court – the impertinent question.
That is the appeal that the Lib Dems are making to the voters in this election. North of the Border, Willie Rennie will resist the SNP’s constitutional fixation and shine a light on the failings that it tries to hide.
Down south, Tim Farron will give a voice to millions of moderate voters who do not want to see Britain undermine its economy and cut itself off from the world.
But there is a third man central to a revival of liberal politics, a man whose name has not been mentioned yet in this election campaign. The death of former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy left a void in Scottish public life that will never be filled. He was the man of the Left that even the grouchiest Right-winger couldn’t help but like for his honesty and integrity.
Many who didn’t share his politics still feel sincere anger at the campaign of bullying and abuse mounted to unseat him shortly before his death in 2015. The SNP could never have beaten a man of his mettle any other way.
If the Lib Dems are to return in Scotland, and across the UK, it will be by carrying forward the Kennedy spirit of fairness and decency. It won’t happen in a single election but there are reasons to be hopeful. Jo Swinson, former MP and minister, is standing again in East Dunbartonshire, giving voters the chance to choose a local MP who puts their community ahead of another angry referendum campaign. Voters in Edinburgh West who feel let down by the SNP may look to their impressive MSP Alex ColeHamilton and reckon it’s time they had a Lib Dem MP again too.
Above all, the party has Willie Rennie and whether he’s fending off farmyard assailants or volleying down slides in children’s play areas, he is reminding electors that the Lib Dems are still around and, in standing up to the SNP and for sensible centrism, they still hold the values that attracted so many voters in the first place.