With the Liberal Democrat conference opening in Brighton this weekend, Layla Moran talks to Tim Walker about Brexit, Vince Cable’s proposals for the party – and those rumours she’s about to succeed him.
Layla Moran, the 35-year-old Lib Dem MP touted as the next leader of her party, was relaxed to the point of insouciance when I texted her to see what she made of Sir Vince Cable’s big speech at the National Liberal Club last week. ‘I wasn’t there and haven’t read it,’ she admitted, startlingly.
It’s true she’d had a fair idea of what he was going to say when we’d met a few days earlier at Portcullis House at Westminster, but most MPs – when their party leaders make speeches – at least go through the motions of saying they switched on their TV sets to watch, even if they haven’t actually bothered.
In person, Moran, a former teacher, is brisk, efficient, charming, but as unlike a politician as it’s possible to be. One of the first things she had felt the need to mention was a small scar just above her right eyebrow. ‘I came into contact with the hand of a rather over-exuberant gentleman on the dance floor of a nightclub in my constituency,’ she said, smiling ruefully.
It required ten stitches, but the Sunday Times seemed to hurt her a lot more with its speculation that she – if not Gina Miller – was about to take over her party. Although she may not catch his every speech, she clearly reveres her party leader. ‘Vince does his job out of a sense of love and duty and he’s always been very supportive to me, so I find it upsetting to read I am positioning to take his job.
‘It’s nonsense, of course, as I only got in last year at Oxford West and Abingdon on a slim majority and there is talk, too, of boundary changes, which will make it even more of a challenge to hold on to it. The journalists who write this stuff never bother to talk to me and it seems to me there is something rather misogynistic about it. Is it because I am a young woman that they think they can dictate a future for me?’
Still, Moran is a classic Lib Dem in that she feels no compunction about criticising her leader when she sees fit. She wondered, for instance, if it was such a great idea to talk of the Canadian Liberals as their new role models. ‘They went from third to first place in Canada in 2015, and that was great, but it was an open primary style process that Justin Trudeau came through, which is not the system we have here.’
She approved, however, of Sir Vince’s idea that the Lib Dems should become a ‘movement for moderates’ to draw in people frustrated with the current political system, but the problem was how to go about it. With still more engaging honesty, she described the Lib Dem conference, which opens this weekend, as ‘a policy wonk’s wet dream’, but couldn’t, for the life of her, see normal people wanting to sit around for days just debating things. ‘A movement like this has to be, too, about more than sending out emails to people as you can get that from Argos.’
Sir Vince also let it be known he would not be fighting the next general election as leader, unless that turned out to be imminent. He proposed allowing people from outside the party the chance to succeed him, a response to the fact that having only 12 MPs – down from the 57 the party had in 2010 – meant that his members are hardly spoilt for choice.
‘If you are not a member of the Lib Dems, why the hell would you want to lead them, so that idea just seems to me to be a bit weird,’ said Moran. ‘At grassroots level, I hear there is some scepticism about it, but let’s debate it and see what the party thinks and respond accordingly. Frankly, if we had listened to the party more during the coalition years, we may not have ended up in some of the tight corners that we did politically.’
Her party may offer an ‘exit from Brexit’, but, for all the disillusionment with the policy, the Lib Dems continue to flatline in the opinion polls. ‘Brexit impacts on just about every other policy issue, but a great many people out there have still to make that connection. We also have a very polarised left and right. My Labour friends tell me that they don’t want to leave their party as they want to try to change it from inside. Tories, meanwhile, say they hate Brexit, but that they hate Corbyn even more, and don’t want to inadvertently let him in by voting for us. I think we in the Lib Dems are, meanwhile, seen too much as a centrist party and we need to be a lot braver than that. We need to be a party of radical and progressive ideas, and I know on this key issue Vince agrees very strongly with me.’
The Lib Dems most realistic prospect of achieving any kind of power is to go into another coalition or form an alliance with a potential breakaway party. ‘Vince’s attitude at the moment is to be a part of any conversation that might lead up to that happening, but I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of being subsumed into something bigger. I am, however, all for more cross-party collaboration. My early life, with my father being an EU diplomat, meant I got used to moving around Europe and that has perhaps made me think more like a European politician. So I am happy when necessary to work with other parties, and, indeed, in Oxford West and Abingdon, I won because the Greens stood down to support me.’
Moran accepts, of course, that political purity is easy to maintain when not actually in government. ‘I’ve never had to come to terms with the practicalities of office, but I can tell you what really pisses me off is when I talk to MPs here and they go on about how annoyed they are with Theresa for doing this or that about Brexit, and then they go through the lobbies to prop her up. I sleep well at nights, but, honestly, I can’t see how they can.’
She laughed when I suggested that as a former teacher she must sometimes feel in the Commons as if she is stuck with a particularly ill-disciplined class. ‘The overwhelming majority of MPs work very hard for their communities, but there are, of course, exceptions, and the system can encourage bad behaviour. I think, for instance, of why Boris Johnson has still not declared his Daily Telegraph salary. I know from my old job that for people who don’t understand punishment, there needs to be punishment.’
Moran has been a conspicuous supporter of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – still imprisoned on trumped up allegations in Iran – and she was dismayed by how badly Johnson bungled her case when he was foreign secretary. ‘I know even as mayor of London, he was not a man who liked to be briefed and he always felt he could wing it. He had that approach at the Foreign Office and that was why Nazanin never got the attention she deserved. He was probably the worst foreign secretary we have ever had.’
Moran is the first MP with Christian-Palestinian heritage through her mother, who was from Jerusalem, but she doesn’t see it as her job to try to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. ‘I happen to spend a lot of my time defending Jews drawn into this conflict as they have nothing to do with Israel, but I am, by the same token, British and my brief is education so that is where my battles are.’
She promises to come up with some bold proposals on education at her party conference – ‘to throw the whole subject up into the air and start a conversation’ – and delegates are certainly assured of a passionate speech. What makes Moran different from other politicians is that she recognises this could well be her one and only crack at being an MP and she just wants to make the most of every day she’s permitted to stay in the job. ‘And don’t feel sorry for me if I do lose my seat in the next election,’ she added, in her wonderfully unpolitical way. ‘I would just go back to what I love doing, which is teaching children.’