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banner Friday, 21 September, 2001, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
The man who got Mandy
Norman Baker
By BBC News Online's John Walton

It's been a remarkable year for Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes.

It is his parliamentary question that lit the slow-burn fuse which led to Peter Mandelson's second sacking from the cabinet over his entanglement in the Hinduja passport controversy.


When Mr Mandelson fell there was a large strand of opinion in my party that didn't rejoice that we had proved we were capable of hitting the government

Norman Baker
Having a hand in claiming the political scalp of the man seen as Tony Blair's political twin is arguably the greatest, most spectacular effect any single backbencher has had on this government.

Just the sort of thing an opposition MP should be up to, some might think. But this is not the view of some within the Lib Dem leadership.

Making capital

Reflecting on last January's Hinduja-related events, Baker rues his own party's unwillingness to make political capital of what was a direct hit by one of its own MPs.

"We didn't exploit that situation enough," he says.

"The fact of the matter was that when Mr Mandelson fell there was a large strand of opinion in my party that didn't rejoice that we had proved we were capable of hitting the government.

"We were just concerned about some of the tactical fall-out on some of our seats from Labour being badly hit."

Few Lib Dem congratulations

When pressed for names, he will only cite "senior figures", refusing to give more detail.

Peter Mandelson announcing his second resignation
Peter Mandelson resigning in disgrace a second time
But he adds: "It was interesting that when Mandelson resigned a lot of Labour MPs came up and congratulated me, and offered to contribute to constituency party funds in one case - that was a cabinet minister.

"I don't suppose he was a serious. He said: 'Where do we send the cheque?'

"I had lots of Tory MPs come up and say I had done very well.

"I didn't have many Lib Dems who came up and said that."

Coming first

Baker is ambitious for his party. He desperately wants to see the Lib Dems not only overtake the Conservatives and become the main opposition party, he wants to see them in power.

And that, he points out, can only happen if the Lib Dems can take seats not just from the Tories, as recent elections show it more than able to do, but from Labour too.


I'm sure people want me to trim my sails both inside and outside the party

Norman Baker
"The strategy I think at the moment is dangerous," he states of his own party leadership's approach. "What it appears to be is to allow the Tories to collapse and win Tory seats, but that is not good enough."

To this end he will no doubt be pleased that Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy have finally wound up the Lib-Lab Joint Cabinet Committee (JCC).

Baker has long been against such co-operation with Labour.

The JCC's suspension heralds a potentially more combative relationship between the two parties.

The Lewes MP has already marked out areas where he believes Lib Dem policies could pick up Labour voters.

Government support for the "son of Star Wars" plans of US President George W Bush is one such area. So too is the widespread use of private finance initiatives to fund the public services.

Leadership

Of his own party's leader, Baker looks to the future and ponders the point: "I think it would be a mistake, with retrospect, if people were to come to the conclusion that Charles Kennedy surrounded himself with people who were either sympathetic to him or who were not likely to cause problems to him.

The new Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith
Hoping the Tories will fall apart is "not good enough"
"It is very easy for a leader to surround himself with people who are on the same wavelength, who don't cause problems and give him a quiet time.

"Leaders who take that course of action, I don't think they are doing a service to the party that they lead."

The rocky road

As for himself, he is determined to continue in the same vein he set out on when he first entered the House of Commons in 1997.

His terrier-like pursuit of what he sees as wrong - whether it's Peter Mandelson, animal welfare issues, MI5 or free parking for MPs - will continue. But "it's not a very popular choice to take", he adds.

"It's a rocky road. I would be more popular, I suppose, if I trimmed my sails, and I'm sure people want me to trim my sails both inside and outside the party".

What imminent scandals is he hoping to have a hand in uncovering? "I've always got things bubbling under," is all he will say.

Whatever they may turn out to be, he doesn't envisage himself pursuing them from anywhere except his party's back benches.

Baker is one of the very few of the Lib Dems' 52 MPs not to have any spokesmanship role.

After Mandelson's second fall, "Charles Kennedy congratulated me on my achievement as a Lib Dem backbencher," he says.

With a straight face, he adds: "And he's obviously very pleased with me because I'm still a backbencher now."


In DepthIN DEPTH
Passport row
The in and outs of the Hinduja affair
See also:

26 Jan 01 | Talking Politics
Norman Baker's week in politics
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