Lord Newby: Bleak predictions for 2017 but silver lining for Lib Dems

There are not many in UK politics '“ particularly not among the liberal, left-leaning ranks '“ who would find something positive to take from the past year.

Lord Newby
Lord Newby

But the Yorkshire peer Lord Newby can see a silver lining, as he suggests the current “dire” political situation could bring victory for the Lib Dems.

Recently appointed to lead the party’s 100-strong contingent in the House of Lords, the former Chief Whip expresses concern that 2016 has been a year for “irrationality and illiberalism”.

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Like many, he believes that the root of this backlash against the establishment lies in people’s feelings of frustration an dis-empowerment at their economic circumstances.

He also has some bleak predictions for 2017, including a weaker economy, a continuing crisis in the NHS and a “shambolic” Brexit process.

However he is unwilling to give in to despair, telling The Yorkshire Post this will ultimately translate into electoral success for his party.

“I think objectively the chances of an early general election are small because Theresa May has first of all said she’s not going to do it, and secondly she’s risk averse,” he says cautiously.

“However, I think things are very unpredictable and I don’t think she’s in a very strong position in the Commons.

“I think 2017 is going to be a gloomy year... The only silver lining is, we will benefit from all these things.

“I think that’s good – not just as a partisan Liberal Democrat, but because the values we stand for will be seen to be capable of asserting themselves against irrationality and illiberalism.”

The party’s fierce opposition to the Government’s plans for leaving the EU – including the triggering of Article 50 without a vote in Parliament – has already paid-off at the polls this year.

Earlier this month, Sarah Olney became the party’s ninth MP in the Commons after defeating Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by election on a platform built around Brexit.

Reflecting back on the referendum itself, Lord Newby argues it was the Remain campaign’s complacency that lost it the vote. He claims leading figures– including the then-Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – lacked the “passion and conviction” exemplified by their rivals in the Leave camp.

Asked to pinpoint a moment that, for him, summed up the overall campaign, the peer describes a conversation he had with a taxi driver in Lichfield several weeks before polling day.

He explains how the man told him “that of 300 Facebook friends, they had done a poll and only 3 were voting to remain”.

“So I said ‘but all the people who know about the economy think its going to be bad for the economy, so why do you disagree with that?’

“And he just said ‘well they would say that wouldn’t they?’”

He says the encounter “shook him” at the time “because I had always thought we could argue and reason with people”.

“It demonstrated that facts on their own aren’t good enough... he’d formed a view, and nothing was going to shake it,” he says.

“And the truth was that most of the conviction and passion was expressed by the other side.

“[Remain campaigners] assumed it was going to be all right, and they didn’t fight it hard.”

He says David Cameron’s subsequent resignation as Prime Minister came as little surprise because he “took an arrogant gamble and lost”.

And far from seeing Theresa May as his natural successor, Lord Newby likens her more to Shakespeare’s Fortinbras: “She woke up one morning and there was Gove dead in the corridor, she woke up the next morning and there was Boris dead in the corridor, so everybody looks round to see who might be the leader and there was only her.”

He suggests Mrs May will face a challenge in getting the new US President elect Donald Trump to take her seriously, because the US billionaire is “very difficult for anybody to influence”

And he indicates that this challenge will be intensified by that fact that Trump does not have “particularly enlightened views about women”.

“His view on foreign affairs seem at times to be little more sophisticated than Sarah Palin,” he adds. “The worrying thing is : where does the American president have the most power? Well, its on foreign affairs.

“He seems very naïve and almost childish some of the statements he makes. Presumably he believes them... he’s very ill-equipped to do the job.”

Looking to the New Year, Lord Newby believes it is a “near certainty” that the Supreme Court will uphold the High Court ruling on Article 50.

But he warns that there is little leverage for Parliament to amend or delay legislation following Labour’s decision to back the Government’s Brexit timetable.

“There may be amendments – what we will be trying to do [is] amend the Bill,” he says,

“But we would only achieve anything if we got support from at least some Labour people here.”