I hate to admit it, but I’m beginning to really value her contribution to politics: as fellow Lib Dem activist A C McGregor observes, she’s rapidly becoming the best advert for the coalition since Norman Tebbit and also far more adept at highlighting Liberal Democrat influence at the heart of government than most of our own ministers.
It really is hard to dislike someone who is so effectively, if inadvertently, fighting our corner. At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Dorries cut a pathetic figure as she unwisely attempted to undermine Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Dorries asked David Cameron “"The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health, many issues, immigration and abortion. Does the prime minister think it's about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?"
It was a question that stemmed from desperation and the false logic of political ignorance. Even the fundamental basis of her argument was unsound: how can she justify a party securing 38% of the popular vote wielding 100% of parliamentary influence? It was interesting that she chose to focus on the Liberal Democrats’ role in shaping policy on free schools, immigration and abortion – on which I appreciate the current policy direction may be anathema to Tory hard-line right wingers such as Dorries. But, while suffering the self-delusion that she is articulating the “true” voice of her party, she is actually proving how out of step she is with the vast majority of Conservatives who find her behaviour embarrassing. Dorries stormed out of PMQs amid howls of laughter from her colleagues after the Prime Minister suggested she was “extremely frustrated”.
I have never believed it would be possible for the Liberal Democrats to achieve all of their key objectives in government. In some areas, the best that can realistically be hoped for is for the excesses of the Conservative Party, and their right wingers in particular, to be curbed – especially in regards moral issues, health reform and immigration - and that is what is clearly happening. Little wonder that Dorries and her ilk will inevitably feel frustrated as their outdated and reactionary worldview is challenged. Not for them the politics of collaboration. Not for them the monstrous suggestion that a coalition government’s direction could be imbued with liberal policy provided by competent ministers provided by the junior partner. We are "influencing" policy precisely because that is our duty as a partner in government; why is that so hard for a supposedly intelligent person to comprehend?
Anyone wishing to see the impact that the Liberal Democrats have made in government need look no further than the frustrated – and vociferously critical - Conservative right-wingers. They've had their wings clippied and they don't much care for it. It is tempting to argue that the foolish outbursts of the Tory right remind us of what Cameron’s party would be like if they were governing on their own, unfettered and unrestrained by Liberal Democrat influence. I’m not convinced that is actually the case, but there can be no doubt that Liberal Democrats are frustrating their Conservative cabinet colleagues, as even Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, agrees with some regret: Liberal Democrats are dragging the coalition away from Conservative manifesto.
I find it interesting that Cameron seems quite happy to create the appearance of using the Liberal Democrats as an excuse for not acting as the Tory right would like him to. What is even more surprising is that both the Tory right and many Liberal Democrats actually believe him. My own perception is that the Prime Minister, far from being an enemy of the principle of coalition, is experiencing and enjoying the rare luxury of freedom from reactionaries within his own party – something not common to his predecessors who were catastrophically rendered impotent through being enslaved to the Conservative right wing. Cameron does not have to pander to Dorries or any of the “vociferous few”, secure with the support of his more moderate coalition partners and the knowledge that it is the Liberal Democrats, not the Conservatives, who are bearing the brunt of public anger.
Of course Dorries’ intervention in Prime Minister’s Questions was a mere prelude to her ridiculous abortion amendment which was debated in the Commons yesterday afternoon. What her amendment would have achieved would be to remove the right of those providing abortions (including the NHS and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) to provide counselling to women with unwanted pregnancies. Under Dorries’ scheme, which lacks any kind of scientific evidence base, counselling would become the preserve of “independent” counsellors, including pro-life groups and faith groups obviously lacking in “independent” perspective.
Not content with her intemperate remarks during PMQs, Dorries proceeded during the debate to suggest that Dr Evan Harris “is blackmailing our Prime Minister and our Government.” She blamed a former MP, who is not even a sitting member, for Cameron’s “climbdown” and argued that Harris has caused the Health Bill to be “held to ransom”. I am not entirely sure why Dorries feels the need to bring her serious delusions to the attention of the world’s media, or why she wishes to reinforce her public image as a bigoted relic of Tory reaction with all the political understanding of a stuffed racoon. However, what I am quite sure of is that this woman has very little grip on reality: after seeing her amendment defeated by 368 votes to 118 Dorries announced that she had “won the war” and the vote represented a “tremendous result”. Clearly she uses a different dictionary to the rest of us.
I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to observe that Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox supported Dorries’ amendment, as did every Northern Ireland MP (including Naomi Long). I was also appalled to discover that three of our own MPs – Alan Beith, Greg Mulholland and Gordon Birtwistle did likewise. While I would not wish to impose a party line on abortion (our party is, and should be, a broad church and abortion is a complex moral issue) this disjointed and ill-conceived amendment was clearly not aiming to deal with either abortion itself or the pastoral needs of those seeking abortion counselling and should have been rejected. I have no idea why the trio of Lib Dem MPs could even consider supporting Dorries’ illogical proposals.
Newsnight, which should have been focusing its energies on reporting the Health Bill passing its third reading instead decided to give this publicity-hungry woman further opportunity to bring her party, her amendment and her office into disrepute by inexplicably allowing her air time to give vent to her prejudices. She didn’t disappoint. She spoke of an evil “abortion industry” while hailing the inevitable defeat of her amendment as a “great result” and peddling more of her conspiracy theories about Liberal Democrats indulging in “blackmailing the government”. I really should have pity on someone who is so deluded and evidently thought disordered, but I’m afraid I found her frankly hilarious, like David Icke on acid.
I think that Dorries’ futile and rather pitiful attempts at undermining the Liberal Democrats are actually working to our advantage, helping to demonstrate our influence in government while simultaneously showing up the Tory right for what it is: self-serving, intolerant, unreasonable and hardline. Given our own ministers’ inability to play up their own role successfully, I think we owe Ms Dorries a debt of gratitude.
David Cameron’s putdown yesterday might have caused hilarity, but in the longer term he must reign in intemperate right-wingers like Dorries if he is to retain his credibility, especially in the light of the BBC’s willingness to create a minor celebrity out of a political nonentity. So far, he has played the game well, giving the impression of respecting his party’s right wingers while using the politics of coalition as justification for his failure to deliver what they want. But this tactic will not work indefinitely and may even prove counter-productive: more decisive intervention from the Conservatives’ leadership will be required to prevent Dorries becoming recognised by the public as some kind of “authentic" - but ultimately unacceptable - voice of British Conservatism. It is not outwith the realms of possibility that the Tories will become more damaged by identification with Dorries than they were by association with the equally dreadful Ann Widdecombe.
Not that, as a Liberal Democrat, I am complaining. Currently Nadine Dorries is one of the greatest assets we have. Long may it continue.