What Norman did next: Interview with former MP Norman Baker
Norman Baker is a strange blend of insider and outsider – a creature of Westminster but also an insistent critic of it.
Portcullis House and its fig trees highlight the contradiction. We meet next to the MPs’ riverside office block and head inside for our interview. As a former MP (the Lib Dem lost his Lewes seat in 2015 after 18 years), Baker has a pass to the £235m building, a perk available to those who have served their time in the bubble. But, ever the scrutiniser of public spending decisions, the first thing he does when we go in is to mention the nonsense with the fig trees. When the building was opened in 2001, it was announced that the 12 trees were being leased for five years at a cost of £150,000; by 2012, the tree rental had cost taxpayers £400,000. He still shakes his head in disbelief as we pass the rather underwhelming greenery en route to the café, wondering why they didn’t just go to a good garden centre and buy them for a fraction of the cost instead.
Why indeed. This is the sort of issue that has always exercised Baker. In his early years as an MP, the 62-year-old was a one-man awkward squad, tabling endless parliamentary questions across all government departments (he posed more questions in three months than his Tory predecessor had in 23 years). The Times sketch writer Matthew Parris commented that “a bore is born”, though conceded that you underestimate Baker at your peril. Certainly, his terrier-like pursuit of issues and individuals yielded some spectacular results for which he will be remembered, including battling his fellow MPs to prise open the Commons expenses regime to public scrutiny and asking questions that ultimately brought about the second and final resignation of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s minister without portfolio, over the Hinduja brothers’ passports.
Meanwhile, his deep unease with the investigation into Dr David Kelly’s death led him to resign his Lib Dem frontbench duties for a year and produce a book, in which he highlighted the long list of unanswered questions around Kelly’s death and put forward the theory that the weapons inspector was murdered. “Why would I go against the grain and risk my reputation and my political career?” he writes in his memoir. “Because the whole thing stank.” It left him branded a conspiracy theorist.
But then, in what appeared to be a dramatic change of direction, the maverick left-winger became a junior minister in the Lib Dem-Tory coalition government (though he later resigned) and even a privy councillor.
Any resemblance to a member of the royalist establishment is purely coincidental, however, as his latest book makes clear. And What Do You Do? is a sort of cost-benefit analysis of the royal household that shines a light on their colossal cost to the taxpayer, their secretiveness, and, more broadly, their effect as a drag on progressive change. The Queen is unlikely to put it on her Christmas list.
Baker describes himself as “instinctively” a republican, but says he thinks the Queen has done “a good job”. This book is not so much a push for abolition but a critique of the British royal family by comparison with other remaining European monarchies.
“It says, here are some people across the channel in Holland, Belgium, Norway and Sweden who actually behave in a constitutional way, cost far less money and you’ll find them shopping in the local shop,” he says. “Can’t we have one of those monarchies, if we’re going to have one at all?
“We have the last imperial monarchy.”
He is annoyed that royal wills are secret and that the royal archives are private, but his most withering criticism is reserved for two things: the right of the Queen and the Prince of Wales to shape and even veto laws that affect their personal assets and interests; and the huge amount of public money which is spent on maintaining the royals, spending that he insists is not properly scrutinised, in part because the political and media establishment is too obsequious.
“The Tory rule is, whatever the monarchy wants, they can have it,” he says, his voice rising in irritation. A case in point is the cost of refurbishing Buckingham Palace, which was quoted as £10m in 2010. That has now gone up to £369m. “The whole of Buckingham Palace is being funded, gold bells and gold whistles, by the taxpayer, when we’ve got food banks all over the place. They are getting everything paid for.”
The book is classic Baker in its focus on what he sees as the twin ills of misuse of public money and secretive decision-making, as well as in its willingness to risk upsetting people. His preoccupation with the abuse of privilege, he has observed, may be a throwback to his “early, somewhat puritanical upbringing” in Aberdeen, where he lived until he was 11 (his late mother was from Perth). He admires other MPs who are prepared to stand up for what they believe in, including Philip Hammond and, controversially, the late Alan Clark (“I deliberately pick someone who didn’t share my beliefs on almost anything”) but is less forgiving of people who aren’t willing to put their heads above the parapet (“Doormat” Hancock gets a mention by name).
Some MPs, he observes, “throw in the towel before they’ve actually had any problems”.
“They stay in the safe segment of the circle, they vote the right way, they don’t rock the boat and they end up with an OBE or a place in the Lords and no doubt they regard that as OK.
“I left here with a clear conscience having done what I thought was right.”
He quickly adds that that doesn’t mean he did always get it right. He has regrets, particularly that avalanche of parliamentary questions. “I was too much of an ambulance chaser when I first got elected. I think it was not wise and not sensible and probably wasted government money unnecessarily, so that’s a regret in a way. And occasionally I made comments on other people in this place without necessarily establishing the facts, which wasn’t right.”
If he were an MP now, he would have one target: Dominic Cummings. Even Mandelson and Alastair Campbell were “a pale shadow” by comparison, he feels (though Campbell’s doctoring of the Iraq dossier was “heinous”). “I’d be going for Cummings because I think he’s a cancer in the government and think he’s running Boris Johnson. In the interests of the country, and in the interests of the Tory party actually, he needs to be got rid of.”
At this point, perhaps portentously, an alarm goes off and MPs, staff and journalists start vacating Portcullis House.
Comfortably installed a few moments later in the afternoon sunlight on a bench by the Thames, Baker reflects on the role of the Lib Dems. He turns out to be a Swinson fan.
“I voted for Jo. I think, of the two candidates, she was the better candidate generally,” he says. “I thought she was a better minister than Ed [Davey] in government – I saw them close up. I think Ed compromised too much; Jo didn’t compromise so much, she stood her ground a bit more, as I hope I did.”
Swinson has certainly got herself noticed, but what does he make of the divisive decision to announce that if the Lib Dems won a majority in a general election, she would simply revoke Article 50?
He seems relaxed about what others in his party regard as undemocratic.
“I think the one thing she didn’t get quite right was explaining the policy on revoke. The policy’s fine, which is that we want a referendum but if we don’t get a referendum and we get to a general election, then we will argue for leaving, and if we get a majority, we will go ahead.”
Shouldn’t she have argued for revoke if she won a majority of votes rather than seats?
“That’s a Lib Dem argument to put. The other two parties wouldn’t dare do that because they are wedded to first past the post.”
Maybe, but the Lib Dems want to reform the Westminster voting system so it seems incredible to be arguing that they could reverse a referendum result just on seat share alone.
“Well,” he ponders, “it wouldn’t just be us; it would be the vote for the Green Party, the vote for the SNP in Scotland and the vote for Plaid Cymru.”
It’s not an argument that is likely to assuage the policy’s critics.
When we meet, the winter election is a racing certainty, but he has high hopes for his party. “I think any result in the next election is possible, I really do, from a huge Tory majority to a huge Lib Dem presence – anything is possible.”
He himself has no plans to stand again, not wanting to go “backwards” into opposition, having been a junior minister. He enjoyed the Department for Transport (Justine Greening called him Normski), but the Home Office was “dry and oppressive” and Theresa May hostile to the idea of Lib Dems in her department. When he resigned in 2014, he said working at the Home Office had been like “walking through mud” and that “rational evidence-based policy” was lacking, particularly on drugs, though he also clashed with May over immigration.
But he offers a balanced view of the woman who went on to become prime minister, describing her as principled in her way. “She’s a flawed character but we all are. She’s quite shy, I think. And I think she’s fundamentally wrong on some issues, but she tried to do her best, unlike the charlatan we have at the moment ,who is not doing his best.”
Baker has endured his share of sneering attacks in the press over his appearance, voice and perceived lack of self-awareness (which he denies). He admits that it did hurt sometimes, but he accepts that there is no alternative to the brickbats for individuals who stray outside that safe segment of the circle.
However, even Norman Baker would baulk at the thought of enduring the sort of personal abuse endured by MPs now, insisting it has got “much worse since the referendum”.
Life now is more hassle-free. Writing books (his memoir came out in 2015) has become part of Baker’s post-parliamentary portfolio career. He spends a day and a half a week working for the Campaign for Better Transport, writes columns for transport magazines, does work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, training and lecturing for the Dods Group and indulges his love of music by hosting three radio music shows: Hidden 60s, Pick up the 70s and Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues (we swop TV theme tune recommendations from the 60s and 70s golden age).
Baker is no dabbler when it comes to music. In fact, on leaving parliament, he focused for a while on his band of middle-aged rockers, The Reform Club, which produces catchy tunes reminiscent of The Kinks, fronted by Baker. He has two albums to his name with the band, as well as a solo one. This includes the single Shipping Forecast, which makes pleasingly dorky references to the Radio 4 weather report overlaid onto a tale about a lonely lover. He was busy with the band for a while, but nowadays they don’t play very often: “We’ve done lots of touring so I’ve probably done enough of that really,” he says.
So would the reform-minded left-winger accept a peerage?
“Never been offered one,” he answers, then smiles as if he’s been found out. “If you’d asked me in 2015, I would have said no, but I wouldn’t necessarily say no now. I wanted a clean break in 2015. But I’m kind of getting more interested in politics again. I wouldn’t want to stand for the Commons again but if I could contribute on the edges, then maybe.”
That would be another twist with which to round off this unorthodox political career.