Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Chris Rennard’

Remembering Paddy Ashdown

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd December, 2018

85F45194-2F0C-4119-85D7-EDB22A8486DBI first met Paddy Ashdown, who died yesterday from cancer at the age of 77, in a queue for coffee at a Liberal Party Assembly (probably his first?), some time after he had been adopted as candidate for what was assumed to be the “safe” Conservative seat of Yeovil, in Somerset. He had the advantage of having put down roots in the area and of being eminently presentable. Only later would we all learn of his exotic background in India and elsewhere, his sterling service in the Special Boat Service and the Diplomatic Corps (possibly with an MI6 sideline). He was quite diffident at this stage and eager to learn. He thought it would take three elections to crack Yeovil, but in fact he did it in two, seizing the seat in 1983, the year that the great anticipated Liberal-SDP Alliance breakthrough failed to happen, mainly because of Mrs Thatcher’s fortitude and good luck in the Falklands War. The Liberal Democrat Party emerged out of the wreckage of the Alliance; Paddy would have preferred we rebrand ourselves as the Democrats, clearly underestimating the affection many Liberals had for their long tradition and values.

00280C49-71D1-42FE-A736-E5E1D0BD1818When David Steel’s leadership of the Party ceased to be really tenable, Paddy threw his hat into the ring, emerging triumphant in 1988. But triumphant over what? The Party’s standing in the opinion polls was so low that it once appeared as an asterisk — so minimal as to be within the margin of error of non-existent. Undeterred, he sought to rebuild it with the same military determination that must have helped him in Borneo. He was aided by a string of by-election gains in southern Tory seats, masterminded by Chris Rennard, and he established weekly meetings of an advisory group (inevitably, but misleadingly, dubbed the “kitchen Cabinet”), which foregathered early in the morning in his office. I was a member of this, each time rushing off afterwards to fulfill my work obligations at BBC World Service radio. I was impressed initially by how he did listen to other voices, but as time went on, he would become less tolerant of dissent, even impatient. This would eventually come to a head when he entered a political bromance with Tony Blair, which stuck in the craw of many of us who had had to deal with the nasty side of the Labour Party in the North.

7619CB55-4509-445A-932D-BBB8D58E5C87Blair’s landslide win in 1997 put paid to any possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition or working relationship, and Paddy started to look elsewhere for opportunities to use his talents. He had asked me to put him in touch with my literary agent, who placed his first book based on fact-finding visits he had made round the countr when he assumed the Party leadership, but later he would go on to produce much more substantial works, including volumes of diaries and military history. By then he had also moved into a new sphere as High Representative to Bosnia-Herzogovina, with plenipotentiary powers, which he clearly savoured. Later he made good use of being part of that anachronistic but often valuable institution, the House of Lords. I would run into him in Parliament or at various occasions and he would reminisce over all that had happened over the past four decades since our first meeting— often with a little cheeky side-remark in Mandarin Chinese, which we had both studied as young men and which created its own, special bond.

 

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Winning Here

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th April, 2018

0BC563C7-00F1-4254-A995-6EFB48B87F6DFor more than two decades, Chris Rennard was the Liberal Democrats’ campaign guru, masterminding successive by-election wins and astounding many media professionals by being able to predict results with uncanny accuracy (sometimes winning himself some useful cash with judiciously-placed bets at the same time). But as his memoir Winning Here (Biteback, £25) makes clear, he was something of a political anorak when he was barely out of short pants (and an orphan), cutting his teeth in the not always friendly environments of Liverpool and Leicester. His talents were soon recognised at the HQ in London, where he graduated from being a one-man campaign band to be the head of a team of 20. Ah, those were the days. Under his stewardship (later with the starring role of Chief Executive) he nurtured the growth of the Party until it won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, post-Iraq War, with Charles Kennedy as party leader. Willie Rennie’s by-election win soon after was the cherry on the top, taking the LibDems to an unrivalled 63 in the House of Coomons (and a hefty contingent in the House of Lords, too, including Chris Rennard himself).  But the wheels we’re beginning to come off the LibDem bandwagon, with Charles’s imminent resignation because of unchecked alcoholism, Simon Hughes’s sexual orientation confusion and Mark Oaten’s walk on the wild side. The book ends there, on a note of triumph, but with storm clouds gathering. But I am sure I cannot be alone in being a little perturbed by the fact that the cover says this is Memoirs Volume 1. Given the rumpus over Chris’s alleged inappropriate behaviour (unproven, a subsequent inquiry decided), maybe it would be wiser to call it a day here. As it is, for a longstanding campaigner and serial candidate such as myself, this book is a treasure trove of memories and anecdotes. I know/knew virtually everyone mentioned, and campaigned with many of them. Interestingly, the European elections get only scant coverage, confirming my suspicion that Chris (and some others in HQ) saw them as a somewhat irritating sideshow. The parliamentary by-elections were the things that kept him motivated — often working grotesquely long hours, detrimental to his personal health — and we can gloriously relive them all here and remember when for Liberal Democrats, the good times really were good.

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Remembering Mike Harskin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th October, 2012

A dozen or so of us gathered in the Guest Room at the House of Lords this evening, courtesy of Lord (Chris) Rennard, to celebrate the memory of Mike Harskin, former editor of Liberal Democrat News, who died at a tragically young age 20 years ago. My contact with him was that between editor and contributor, which was enough to make me realise how unconventional his approach was, sometimes concertina-ing a whole week’s production schedule into one marathon day-and-night session. Mike fought the Brent South parliamentary seat, unsuccessfully, and for a while could be found in the Liberal Whips office in the House of Commons, but he will better be remembered for being one of the key activists in what were dubbed the ‘Green Guard’ of the National League of Young Liberals who sometimes were such a headache to David Steel. These were an ecologically-minded antidote to the previous libertarian socialist Red Guards of Peter Hain & Co, who had made life hell for Jeremy Thorpe, and brought together such figures as Felix Dodds (now in the US) and a literal household of young Liberal activists including Carina Trimingham and Louise Bloom and up-and-coming political stars such as Martin Horwood MP. All of the aforementioned (except Felix) were there tonight, along with Peter Chegwyn, David Boyle and others. It was a delightfully incongruous setting for such an assemblage, but Mike would have enjoyed the irony. He didn’t live long enough to experience the full flowering of the Internet revolution and social media, alas, but I have no doubt he would have revelled in it if he had.

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Being a Junior Partner in a Coalition

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th March, 2012

For half a century and more the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, languished as the high-minded, principled oppositional alternative to both Conseratives and Labour, and I have to say that most of us found that situation pretty comfortable, although we spoke wistfully of one day having the chance of getting into power. But I think we realised that the only way that would happen in the post-modern age was as a junior partner in coalition with one of the two ‘major’ parties, which could well result in a shrinkage in our level of public support (as indeed Chris Rennard long ago warned). We looked at examples such as Germany’s FDP and saw that even on a small share of the vote one could nonetheless wield quite a lot of influence (admittedly under a system of proportional representation in Germany’s case), and even aspire to having a few Cabinet Ministers. I suppose most of us imagined that if that opportunity arose, it would almost certainly be in a Coalition with Labour; indeed, Paddy Ashdown and some of his closest colleagues imagined that could happen with a Blair-led government, before Britain’s warped electoral system gave Tony Blair a humungous majority and he veered away from social democracy to become seriously illiberal and a George W Bush groupie. So it was with some surprise that after the May 2010 election the arithmetic meant that only a Tory-led Coalition in Britain was possible. But did that inevitably mean that the LibDems as the junior partner would be screwed? This was the subject of a fascinating seminar put on at Westminster’s Portcullis House yesterday by the Centre for Reform, moderated by former LibDem Chief Executive Lord (Chris) Rennard. Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos-MORI was somewhat disheartening in his analysis of the way that sacrificing full independence had inevitably led to the LibDems’ sharp decline in the opinion polls. But his pessimism was counter-balanced by the Deputy Leader of the party, Simon Hughes MP, who — despite getting into a bit of a muddle with his statistics — managed to reassure the audience that the LibDems, far from crashing to oblivion are still alive and kicking and actually doing better than at many times in their recent history, as well as winning real victories on policy within the Coalition government. Martin Kettle, the acceptable face of the Guardian’s political columns, was also fairly upbeat; unlike Polly Toynbee he does not feel we have sold our soul to the devil, and moreover he believes that even in the North — from which, like me, he hails — there is a future for the party. In the ensuing discussion I pointed out that being the junior partner in a Coalition government is rather like travelling down a road full of hidden sleeping poliemen. The tuition fees débacle was probably predictable; the NHS Bill less so. But I warned that the Tory rethink on the Heathrow third runway could be a third bump that could shake the Coalition and cause a fall in support for the LibDems unless the party came out firmly against once again. I didn’t get quite the ringing endorsement of this line that I’d hoped for from Simon Hughes (or indeed Lord Rennard), but I think the point was taken.

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Streatham on a Knife Edge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th March, 2010

Chris Nicholson, LibDem candidate for Streatham in South London in the forthcoming general election rallied the troops at his launch at the Bocca restaurant in Streatham High Road this evening, aided and abetted by (Lord) Chris Rennard (and other attendant locally resident peers), who shared recollections of the 1986 West Derbyshire by-election, when my earstwhile BBC colleague Chris Walmsley failed by a mere 100 votes to seize the seat from the Tories, and Ed Davey’s dramatic win — by a margin of 56 votes — in Kingston and Surbiton in 1997. The purpose of this nostalgia was to incite the assembled throng to yet more activity because, Lord Rennard opined, the Streatham result this time is going to be very, very close. And as a political betting man with a sixth sense when it comes to predicting results, he should know. So, a double message for the burghers of Streatham in the run-up to 6 May: all LibDem hands from the constituency and surrounding area to the pump, and for those Conservatives/Greens and others who may just want to get Labour out: you know what to do!

Link: www.chrisnicholson.org.uk

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K&C and the Rennard Formula

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th March, 2010

Lord (Chris) Rennard was the ideal guest speaker at tonight’s launch for Chelsea and Fulham Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate Dirk Hazell — who was Chairman of London’s Conservatives before seeing the light. For it was the Rennard formula of targeting, choosing the right candidate and then bombarding the said ward or constituency with literature which enabled the local party to make its first breakthrough last summer, electing Carol Caruana to the borough council as the first ever elected Liberal Democrat councillor, representing Colville ward. Of course it helped that Carol (who works at the party headquarters in Cowley Street) not only lives in the ward but had already established a reputation for herself as a local champion, not least fighting to save the character of the Portobello Road. But it was the Rennard formula — implemented by agent Robin Meltzer, who is now the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington, and aided and abetted from helpers from all over London — that clinched it, with a very healthy majority, to boot. Now the challenge will be to elect Carol’s two running mates, Tim Jones and Peter Kosta, so that there is a Liberal Democrat group on the Council — albeit a small one — that can propose motions and start to function as a potential opposition in the otherwise largely true-blue Royal Borough. I was pleased to be at the launch event this evening, not only as part of my job as Chair of London Region LibDems to keep in touch with what is happening round the capital, but also because I fought the then Chelsea parliamentary seat in 1983. I moved the party up into second place on that occasion and I look forward to Dirk Hazell’s making greater progress under the revised boundaries.

http://kensingtonandchelsealibdems.org.uk/

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Paddy Ashdown chez Chris Rennard

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th December, 2009

Few local party fundraisers attract three members of the House of Lords, even when one of them is the host, but (Lord) Chris and (Lady) Ann Rennard opened their house in Stockwell this evening for a soirée in honour of Vauxhall’s LibDem PPC, Caroline Pidgeon, GLAM, at which the star attraction was former Liberal Democrat leader (Lord) Paddy Ashdown (whose London base is in Kennington) — and at which the Party President, (Baroness) Ros Scott, was also present. Paddy was eloquent over the cocktail sausages about the three challenges he believes are facing Britain: financial, international and existential. Perhaps the last needs a little explaining, before people run for their Jean-Paul Sartre: in other words, the environmental threats to our planet. As world leaders haggle over climate change-related targets in Copenhagen, the Conservatives under David Cameron are trying to paint themselves green, but unconvincingly so, in Paddy’s opinion. He also, for what it is worth, thought Gordon Brown will go right through to May, rather than risking a March general election. Either way, there will be many thousands of leaflets for activists to deliver in Lambeth and beyond. 

Link: http://vauxhall-libdems.org.uk

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LIBG Forum on the US Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th October, 2008

A dismayingly large percentage of the British electorate has shown little inclination to turn out in recent elections, but I suspect that several millions would just love to have a vote in the US presidential election next month. There is a rational case to make that the result of that contest will have more of an impact on our lives than many of the votes we are able to take part in. So it was maybe not surprising that the Forum on the US elections Liberal International British Group (LIBG) put on at the National Liberal Club tonight attracted a capicty audience; in fact, there were even people standing at the back.

We had a great line-up of speakers: Bill Barnard, Chairman of Democrats Abroad, (Lord) Chris Rennard, Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats (who gave a most entertaining account of gate-crashing events at the recent Denver Democrat Convention) and Nick Childs, former Washington correspondent and now political correspondent of the BBC Wotld Service. There is little doubt that if Brits — indeed, almost any other nationality — could vote, Barack Obama would win by a landslide. But we can’t. And the Sarah Palin phenomenon, which leaves most Europeans open-mouthed with disbelief, taps into a certain genuine American small-town conservative religious vein. The contest is far from over. I suspect that far more Brits will be sitting up to watch the results on US election night next month than at any other previous US presidential contest.

Link: www.libg.org.uk

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A Brief Encounter on Waterloo Bridge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd April, 2008

Bleary-eyed and somewhat jet-lagged, I joined a pack of Southwark and Camden councillors, Simon Hughes, Chris Rennard and other LibDem worthies early yesterday morning, for a photo-shoot with Brian Paddick on the central reservation of Waterloo Bridge, as we all pretended to be a cross-river tram. The TV crews and phoographers loved it, even if the commuters struggling past us looked distinctly bemused. It made a change from delivering leaflets, anyway.

At the other end of the day, I was at the Gallery in Foyle’s bookshop for the launch of Andrew Hosken’s unauthorised biography of Ken Livingstone (Arcadia, £15.99), described by the Evening Standard in the following terms: ‘No book is more eagerly awaited in all campaign camps’. How many people will have the chance to read it before polling day next Thursday is another matter, but I shall be reviewing it. Hosken’s earlier book was about that other extraordinary London political figure, Dame Shirley Porter. Labour gliterati were out in force at the Foyle’s launch, but so too Merlene Toh Emerson, who is flying the LibDem flag in London West Central in the GLA elections. 

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