And I hereby declare that John Hemming MP has been elected Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
The above is a phrase that no returning officer will ever be called upon to say. You know it, I know it, everybody in the Lib Dems knows it. Hell, I suspect even John Hemming himself knows it. As a humble (?) backbencher, John would get only a tiny share of the vote. So why is he even considering standing in the current leadership election?
There are two possible answers. It could be that he's simply on an ego trip, but, knowing John, I don't think that's the case. I think the real answer is that he genuinely does want to provoke debate in the party. With two candidates in Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne who have very similar backgrounds and whose views and ideologies are not a million miles apart, a contest which featured just the two of them might not stimulate a great deal of debate about where the party is heading and I think the contest would focus mainly on personality differences. If John Hemming was also a candidate, I think there would be a far wider range of issues discussed, whether it's how we deal with declining oil reserves or the way social services deal with families (two of his pet causes). And that would force the other two candidates to give real consideration to the visions they have to offer the party and I think would promote greater clarity. Who knows, it might even serve to highlight differences between the two leading candidates which would help to make the contest a real choice.
But the general reaction to John's potential candidacy within the party has been one of hostility or irritation, and it also looks as though he's struggling to get sufficient nominations from his fellow MPs to allow him to join the race. Over on Liberal Burblings Paul Walter makes a plea for MPs to nominate to allow him to stand. I agree. When John sent out his position paper setting out his leadership stall, I emailed him to let him know that I'd be willing to sign his nomination papers in the interest of promoting the widest possible debate in the party, even though I'd almost certainly be voting for somebody else (who, I haven't yet decided). MPs should be willing to do the same.
Indeed, I'd actually go further and remove the requirement for MPs to have to nominate people for leader, although I'd retain the proviso which states that candidates need the backing of 200 members. If someone feels that they have something to offer, their voice should not be denied simply because they happen to be in a small minority in the parliamentary party.
Also, why when we claim to believe in devolution do we insist that the federal leader must be a Westminster MP? There are plenty of talented people in Scotland, Wales, the European Parliament and the Greater London Assembly, and I hope in the future we'll have people in other regional assemblies as well. While I'd expect the federal leader would almost always be a Westminster MP, it shouldn't be a requirement. Let's have leadership contests open to all the talents - including John Hemming.
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