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 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 ex-pats 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 himself to be one of the most serious figures of the last 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 just 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 Brexit, 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 routine deployment of armed police, stop and search, and the 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 chief pointed out her Janus-faced positioning over the EU. That’s Mr Rennie’s secret weapon: Ruth Davidson brings volume and Kezia Dugdale empathy but he has the deadliest skill of all in a royal court — the impertinent question.
That is the appeal the Liberal Democrats 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 they try 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. The death of 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 Cole-Hamilton 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’s 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.
A new poll puts the Scottish Tories on course to take 12 seats on election day. After Brexit and Trump opinion polls should come with their own Salt ‘n’ Shake sachets but there is undeniably a mood in the air.
Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit gamble, leveraging the 62% Remain vote to blackmail Theresa May, has backfired. Scots resent having their pro-EU ballot exploited as tacit backing for independence. The Nats will now spend six weeks pretending they don’t want a second referendum, knowing it’s electoral hemlock to Middle Scotland.
Someone didn’t get the memo. A newspaper with close ties to the SNP leadership declared at the weekend: ‘[The] General Election is in the interest of the Tories, not the people, but Scotland can use it for a mandate for independence.’ That is as close to an admission as you’re likely to get up-front: A vote for the SNP on June 8 will become an endorsement for Indyref2 on June 9.
Before his death aged 44 on Friday, ex-Rangers player Ugo Ehiogu tweeted that he had just given money to a homeless girl he didn’t know. His final words have inspired soccer fans to follow his example and go out of their way to help a stranger in need. It’s a worthwhile legacy and a fine epitaph for a talent taken from the game far too soon.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.