Sketch: Willie Rennie talks about pigs at the Lib Dem conference
It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since Willie Rennie stood, grinning wildly in an Aberdeenshire conference centre, and unveiled his 'sunshine strategy'. It seemed laughable at the time but with British politics soaked in a kind of perma-doom, in retrospect, the strategy – basically an attempt to steer the constitutional debate by smiling mindlessly – actually may have been the most coherent political plan of the last decade.
Maybe it’s only in contrast with every other political strategy since. Or maybe the Lib Dems know more than they’re letting on. The party conference was a chance to find out.
Much of the focus, naturally, went on the party leader’s speech, and it was a fun one, with Tim Farron taking to the stage and announcing, “I am a great loser”, before going on to prove it.
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He spoke for quite a long time and to be honest, it was a pretty odd speech, with the Lib Dem leader swerving from claiming he would “work with all parties or none” but could never work with Jeremy Corbyn, to listing the physical contests in which he believed he could best Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (he would lose at boxing but believes himself to be a superior fell runner).
But the real high point had been the party’s Scottish leader. Bounding on stage, Rennie started by running through his party’s towering success in the Scottish Parliament elections.
“No one is supposed to beat the SNP,” he boasted, “but we did.”
The crowd nodded, delighted. And it is true, the Lib Dems did beat the SNP. In five seats.
Going through each triumph individually, he said: “North East Fife and Edinburgh West: lost last year. Gained this year.
“The first gains in a decade.
“It wasn’t in the script. We tore up the script.”
The crowd clapped. This bit was especially impressive – Rennie didn’t like ‘the script’ so he physically destroyed it. That’s what makes him a winner. Even if the script doesn’t actually exist, the meaning was clear. Rennie would metaphorically attack any metaphor which implied his party’s failure. The man is a badass and the script is gone. Torn up.
Returning to his script, Rennie went into more detail on his electoral strategy.
“How did we do it?” he asked, with a flourish. “No, it wasn’t just a couple of amorous pigs in the background of my daily TV interview that won the election.”
Who thought it was? Had anyone suggested this to Rennie? And had that been in the script? If so, he should probably have torn that bit out too.
Continuing, he said: “Like those pigs, we won by casting aside any inhibitions.”
This was confusing, especially because the pigs didn’t decide to ‘cast aside inhibitions’ on that fateful day. Unlike people, they are pigs. When they started mating, they didn’t know the leader of a formerly grand political party was lurking nearby, having brought along a camera crew to use them as a springboard to gain national media attention. It’s not the pigs who should worry about inhibitions.
It was probably meant as some sort of analogy, but it was hard to get away from the fact that the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems was standing in front of a large crowd talking about some pigs he had watched having sex. It’s been six months now, and he is still talking about it. He may never stop talking about it. His memoirs are going to be disgusting.
Eventually he moved on, in terms of the substance of the speech, if not mentally. So how did they do it (the Lib Dems, not the pigs)?
The Lib Dems, he said, were: “Progressive, optimistic, outward-looking. And we told people with huge smiles on our faces.
“We said we wanted to make Scotland the best in the world again.”
The best at what? He didn’t say. He just repeated the phrase, “The best in the world” again, knowingly.
In fact, Rennie repeated himself quite a bit. He said the phrase “Progressive, optimistic, outward-looking” nine times in the course of about ten minutes.
Rennie was “Progressive, optimistic and outward-looking” on college places and nurseries, “Progressive, optimistic and outward-looking” on the police, “Progressive, optimistic and outward-looking” on banning fracking and especially “Progressive, optimistic and outward-looking” on the future of the UK. If anything, Rennie was too sunny. The man is like a sunbed gone wrong, or a star collapsing in on itself.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and pigs. He also had a warning about what he called “the terrible twins of divisive politics”.
“The Tories need nationalists to scare voters in England. The nationalists need the Tories to scare voters in Scotland,” he said.
This was a very astute point, in fact, Rennie should use the threat of the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England to scare voters towards the Lib Dems more often.
Like the pigs, he is obviously trying to make hay while the sun is shining.
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