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Lord Bonkers’ Diary 308
19 February 2006 (13:27:00)


Rutland in winter. Earth stands hard as iron and water like a stone; this morning I distinctly heard frosty wind make moan. Snow has fallen, snow on snow – and I shouldn’t be surprised if it fell snow on snow too. All in all, the fields are white as a newly scrubbed orphan. In my experience one can be certain of two things at this time of year: it will snow in Rutland and little will happen in the political world. Consequently, I have devoted myself to the affairs of my estate and the village. I have superintended the clearing of drainage ditches, overseen repairs to the fabric of St Asquith’s and achieved much else besides. Tomorrow I shall take the train to St Pancras and return to the hurly, and indeed burly, of Westminster life.


Good God! Merciful Heavens! I count myself a pretty broad-minded fellow – I went to Uppingham – but really! What has been going on? Kennedy! Rising Star!! The Reverend Hughes??? I shall not pretend I did not notice a certain froideur when I invited the larger part of the parliamentary party to Christmas luncheon at the Hall, but I never dreamed it would come to this. As I leaf through the cuttings in the press office at Cowley Street, a host of images swim before me: Kennedy sprawled on the pavement beneath his office window; Oaten announcing his candidature with Lembit Öpik at his side (Öpik, incidentally, is wearing that hat of his – the one with the radio antennae which link him to a number of satellites so that he can be made aware at once of approaching asteroids); the Reverend Hughes declaiming “My name is Simon Hughes and I am running for Bishop” from the pulpit of St Tatchell’s, Bermondsey. Thank goodness I was in Rutland for all of it!


“Big chief drink heap firewater. Rising Star become um new chief,” as Mark Oaten once remarked to me as we were stalking buffalo in Hampshire. From what I have been told this morning, he has little chance of becoming um leader now, but he did have a point. This afternoon I steal a few moments with my old friend Vince Cable and ask him exactly what went on with Kennedy. It transpires that his senior officers left him alone in the leader’s office with a bottle of Auld Johnston and an old service revolver of Paddy Ashplant’s that someone found at the back of a cupboard in Cowley Street. “What happened next?” I ask. “In essence,” replies Low Voltage, “he drank the whisky and came out shooting.” I place a consoling hand upon his arm and say that I quite understand why Kennedy had to be defenestrated with all due despatch.


I must confess that I am sorely confused. For the past year or more everyone has been praising a fellow called Clegg to me. “You must meet Clegg,” they say. “Clegg is terribly good;” “It’s time Clegg was promoted.” Now I am constantly being told: “You must meet Huhne,” “Huhne is terribly good” and “It’s time Huhne was leader.” Indeed, for all I know, they may be one and the same person: as far as one can ascertain, for instance, both are Belgians. Be that as it may, Clegg was last seen bearing off poor Ming Campbell with the support of a posse of the younger Liberal Democrat MPs, including Danny Alexander, Sarah Teather, Jeremy Browne, Julia Goldsworthy and the lovely Jo Swinson (or it may have been Jo Swinson and the equally lovely Julia Goldsworthy).


A hastily scribbled note is brought to me at Bonkers House in Belgrave Square, where I am staying for the week, by a friendly pigeon. It reads: “Help! Clegg and Teather are holding me prisoner. I am being pumped full of monkey glands and they have made me sell the Jag. Ming.” Poor Campbell. As I once observed to him, “the thenzies, Menzies, you are easily led”. You will recall that he fell in readily with Ashcan’s absurd plan to merge us with Blair’s New Party, and for years his beloved Elspeth has worn the trews in their household. She tells him “Menzies, we are not leaving Morningside” or “Menzies, you are to be leader,” as the mood takes her. Guided by the pigeon, and accompanied by a few stout retainers armed with orchard doughties, I locate the garret where Campbell is being held and batter down the door to free him.


As we drive back to Rutland, Menzies Campbell, hidden under a travelling rug, describes the Meeting the Challenge hustings to me. When he reaches Mark Oaten’s speech – with its talk of being a “twentieth-first century Liberal” – a mystery is solved. For a few weeks before Christmas, Oaten came to the Hall and asked if he could work in my Library; after he had left I found that a page had been torn from my Collected Speeches 1904-7. It contained my address to the hustings that was held here in Rutland South-West in ’06. How well I remember that speech! After a few jocular remarks about how I owned the homes of so many of the audience (and a reminder that their rents fell due on Lady Day), I gave it both barrels: “I believe I am a 20th century Liberal and I am determined to lead a 20th century Liberal party.” Perhaps I was overegging it a bit by mentioning the leadership before I had quite reached the Commons, but I was tolerably proud of it nonetheless. Talking to Campbell, I discover that Oaten had cribbed it word for word – but for the ingenious device of substituting “21st century” for my “20th century”. A chap who has the immortal rind to do that deserves all that befalls him, a fair-mined judge will conclude.


Rutland in winter. In my absence, snow has indeed fallen snow on snow, snow on snow, and I cannot pretend that the water is any the softer, but we have roaring fires here at the Hall and Campbell and I are soon installed in front of one with a bottle of Auld Johnston between us. Will my old friend become our next leader? Or will it be Huhne, now that he appears not to be Clegg after all? Or will the Reverend Hughes prove that, despite what one’s housemaster said, people are no longer bothered about That Sort Of Thing? I think I shall stay here in Rutland, putting up with the less than cheerful noise of frosty winds, until the contest is safely over.

Lord Bonkers, who was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10, disclosed his leadership ambitions to Jonathan Calder.

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