A CUT in fuel duty for island communities and fairer transmission charges are two ambitions northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael hopes to see come out of this week’s Liberal Democrat coalition agreement with the Conservative government.
Speaking late on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Carmichael said that he had not slept since Saturday when he arrived in Westminster following his success at the polls, due to his alarm at the prospect of his party going into government with the Tories.
After four days of negotiations that produced a four page coalition agreement, he said he was now “genuinely excited” about the future.
He believes that local people who share his initial concerns about the deal should read the document themselves to see how much LibDem policy is in there. They should also realise that the Labour Party were simply not interested in a meaningful coalition.
While Labour refused to budge on ID cards, the Tory negotiating team had no difficulty dropping inheritance tax. The referendum on electoral reform would also have been in doubt with Labour, he said.
“There are a lot of headline grabbing things in the agreement: linking the state pension to average earnings, raising the tax threshold, the development of marine renewables.
“But the thing that actually pleases me the most is the commitment to end the detention of children in immigration removal centres.
“That isn’t a big headline thing, but in terms of gauging the mood and tenor of the government, I think that is decent, civilised, progressive politics. I don’t think that would be in there but for us.
“It is something the Labour Party have wrung their hands but done nothing about for years, and there are small things like that which I would point to and say will make a real difference.”
On local matters, there are “a number of issues” Mr Carmichael hopes to see rapid progress on, including a fairer system for charging for the transmission of electricity. That would make the Viking Energy project more viable, and could also help reduce its size as less capacity would be needed to pay for a cable to the mainland.
However his first priority is fuel duty. “I have already had discussions with some people about how we might tackle fuel prices. These are at the very, very early stages, but the refreshing thing is that we are having conversations which start with a presumption of finding solutions and not just searching for an excuse to do nothing.”
Also of benefit to the isles is the shift from air passenger duty to a plane duty. When that happens the coalition has agreed that island lifeline flights will be exempted from such a tax. “It could mean a reduction in fares up here, but that tax has already been reduced for island passengers so it’s not enormous.”
On Wednesday Mr Carmichael had yet to be offered a job in the government. He had been tipped as late as Tuesday to become the Secretary of State for Scotland, but that position went to “one of my best friends”, Highland MP Danny Alexander who played a major role in the coalition talks.
The relationship with Scotland will be under great scrutiny. The Conservatives have only one MP in the country and the LibDems just 11 on a reduced vote.
However despite having previously argued for an end to the Scottish Office, Mr Carmichael sees opportunities under the new regime.
“The tribalism between the Labour Party and the SNP is quite breathtaking sometimes and there is now an opportunity to improve on that. If Alex Salmond can be sufficiently statesmanlike and take that opportunity, then I think there are real opportunities.”
He cited the recent example of Scottish fishing secretary Richard Lochhead being barred from EU talks in Spain. “That was outrageous, sheer naked tribalism and that sort of thing is unnecessary. It could be changed and that would be a real benefit to Shetland.
“I would say that this is an opportunity to make the relationship between the government in Edinburgh and the government in London work better.”
The Scottish Parliament is to receive greater powers under recommendations by the Calman Commission, and could benefit from extra income to match the “pupil premium” payments being introduced in England and Wales.
But the reality of public spending cuts will have to be accepted, he said, even by Scotland’s first minister, who Mr Carmichael described as “the arch deficit denier”.
As a party, the main plank of LibDem policy has been electoral reform and it was one issue on which the party was never going to compromise.
Mr Carmichael said he was very happy with the agreement to have “a whipped vote” on the referendum, which virtually guarantees it will take place.
The outcome will be decided by a simple majority, unlike the referendum on Scottish independence in the 1970s, and strict limits will be placed on how much each party can spend on campaigning.
“It will be up to us to campaign for it in a referendum. Maybe some Conservatives will campaign against it, but it’s the best chance we have ever had of getting electoral reform and it’s more than we would get from anyone else.
“The Labour Party had a referendum on the alternative vote as part of their manifesto, but they indicated during the negotiations that they couldn’t even guarantee delivering that because they thought a lot of their back benchers might oppose it.”
On the highways and byways of the northern isles there is suspicion about the deal, just as there is throughout the country. But Alistair Carmichael MP is a convert.
“I would say to people, judge this agreement by its contents, not by the fact that it involves the Conservatives, because I think this is an agreement which is well rooted in the principles of fairness and change on which I contested the general election.
“There are some elements on which I am not 100 per cent happy, but you have to judge if the price is worth paying, and the Conservatives have had to pay a price as well.
“This is an agreement that I can be enthusiastic about. It took me some time to get used to the idea of working with the Conservatives. On the occasions I have worked with other parties it has generally been with the Labour Party, the SNP or the Greens.
“So it’s something of a learning curve for me and it wasn’t an expectation I came to London with on Saturday. But as the negotiations have progressed and as I have seen what’s in the agreement, I have ultimately become enthusiastic for the possibilities that it offers.
“I would not be part of this if I had thought that this wasn’t an agreement which was consistent with Liberal Democrat principles and values.”
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