ALISTAIR Carmichael has warned that the country faces “a difficult five years ahead” after David Cameron’s Tories won a majority in last week’s UK General Election.
The newly re-elected MP, albeit on a drastically reduced share of the vote, has faced much criticism over the Liberal Democrats’ role in coalition with the Conservatives since 2010.
But he still firmly believes it was right for his party to go into government in the national interest, and says he has concerns about what the Tories will do having been unshackled from their coalition partners.
Speaking to Shetland News on Monday, Carmichael reaffirmed that he has no interest in filling his party’s leadership vacancy. Nick Clegg resigned from the role following Thursday’s election, which saw the Lib Dems’ tally of MPs drastically reduced from 56 to just eight.
“I know what it takes to lead a modern British political party and I just don’t think that’s the right job for me,” he said.
While it was “flattering” to get messages telling him to put his name forward, it is “important to retain some self-awareness” and “if you know in your heart that it’s not the right thing to do, you shouldn’t do it”.
But with only eight MPs remaining, “frankly there’s going to be a leadership role for us all, and I’m completely committed to the task of rebuilding”.
He was pleasantly surprised that over 250 party activists turned up to a meeting in Edinburgh on Sunday and they are “coming out fighting”.
“As a party we won’t be able to put the brakes on the Tories in the way we did in the last parliament,” Carmichael said.
“The things they’ve already identified – abolition of the Human Rights Act, Theresa May wants to bring back the snoopers’ charter, the European referendum – I am as opposed to all of these things as I have ever been. [But] there are other ways of campaigning without being in government.”
Carmichael formally ceased to be secretary of state for Scotland, a role filled by the Conservatives’ only Scottish MP David Mundell.
There was mild speculation following the vote that Cameron might seek to reappoint Carmichael to the role, but the Northern Isles MP says that any such approach would have been flatly rejected: “It’s one thing to be a Lib Dem minister in a coalition government, but it will be a cold day in hell before I become a LibDem minister in a Tory government.”
A surge in support for the SNP across Scotland, combined with discontent at the coalition government, meant Carmichael only won the seat by 817 votes. His share fell by over 20 per cent while the nationalist candidate, Danus Skene, saw his party’s share rise by nearly 28 per cent.
During the campaign his opponent accused him of trying to execute a “quickie divorce” with the Tories. But, while remaining unrepentant about going into coalition, Carmichael insists his fears about what Cameron and chancellor George Osborne will do in power are genuine and not a mere campaigning tactic.
“There are £12 billion of welfare cuts that they have never specified, despite being repeatedly ask. I fear for what they will do with the immigration system, all of which can in fact be bad news for the economy as well. I think we have got a difficult five years ahead of us as a country.”
Asked what impact a government hostile to green energy might have on attempts to grow the renewables industry in the Northern Isles, Carmichael said it was something that will need a “very close eye” – though he noted that Greenpeace has welcomed Amber Rudd’s appointment as energy and climate change secretary.
He said there was “fierce opposition” to green measures from the Conservatives – “especially from the chancellor of the exchequer” – and he thinks the climate change agenda could be a victim.
“What we have here is quite a small Tory majority, and I saw myself in the years when I was in the whip’s office, every time he [Cameron] came under pressure from backbenchers, his response was to tack off to the right.
“The Tory right, in these circumstances, may exert disproportionate influence and for an area like climate change, where they have never had much commitment, David Cameron referred to ‘green crap’… I fear that will be one of the first targets.
“I think it could be bad news for renewables across the country, but let’s wait and see what they come forward with.
“In some ways, a lot of the commitments, contracts of difference and other mechanisms are now locked in for quite a long time to come, so it will be difficult for them to walk away from them.”
Carmichael acknowledges that the SNP’s 50 per cent share of the vote, as well as leaving him the sole Lib Dem MP north of the border, means there is a new reality in Scottish politics.
He has faced major criticism both during last year’s referendum and in this campaign from the SNP – most notably relating to his role in the Scotland Office leak claiming Nicola Sturgeon would prefer to see Cameron as Prime Minister, something she categorically denies.
Carmichael says the LibDems will respond by opposing a “pretty illiberal agenda” in both London and Edinburgh.
“I think Britain needs liberal voices more now than ever it has done, whether it’s opposing the Conservatives at Westminster, with their snoopers’ charter, or whether it’s opposing the nationalists in Edinburgh with their use of stop-and-search, centralising police, introducing an identity database.”
He said the Smith Commission, setting out new devolved powers, was put together by “building the broadest possible consensus” and to go beyond that, the best way would be “getting everybody in, around the table, and having a proper grown-up discussion”.
Looking ahead to next year’s Holyrood elections, does he think Tavish Scott will find it difficult to resist the SNP’s challenge and keep the Shetland seat?
“There’s going to be a lively contest, you can be sure about that, but I know from door-knocking I’ve done that there’s still an enormous amount of goodwill for Tavish out there.”
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