Norman Baker: Liberal Democrat MP and "independent minded" manNorman Baker

If people voted with their feet, Norman Baker would have every reason to be worried. Aside from the student Liberal Democrat executive committee members, I can count the number of students in attendance at his talk on British politics on one hand. He half-jokes that the talk may as well have been held in his constituency, as he recognises some of the adult faces.

Norman Baker is a Liberal Democrat MP and, thanks to a recent reshuffle, Minister of State at the Home Office. He’s also a conspiracy theorist, publishing in 2007 The Strange Death of David Kelly, in which he questioned whether the real cause of the scientist’s death had been covered up by government. Caricatured by some parts of the media as eccentric, even a bit odd, much has been made of Clegg’s decision to trust him with our national security. I’m almost disappointed, as a result, by the talk and subsequent interview - he comes across as perfectly reasonable, professional and actually quite sensible.

I ask if he ever feels like an outsider.

“I regard myself as independent minded, I’ve always adopted a policy in life of following the evidence wherever it goes, and if the conclusions from the evidence are uncomfortable, then so be it…there’s a safe segment you can work in as an MP, and if you move outside that segment then you take risks. I’ve always moved outside that segment, because there are things, I think, that should be said and looked into.”

A substantial part of his speech focuses on defending the party’s recent record. He sees policies such as the pupil premium, the raising of the income tax threshold and the closing of tax loopholes as part of a “huge list” of Liberal Democrat achievements in government that “wouldn’t be happening” under the Conservatives or the Labour Party.

Baker argues that his party got a “better deal in the coalition agreement than the Tories,” and believes seventy-five per cent of the coalition’s work to be positive.

He concedes, though, that some government actions have been “more difficult to justify.” He stops short of expressing pride in the government’s achievements, but tells me “I’m proud of the Lib Dem record. Genuinely.”

It strikes me as slightly odd then, that he spends so long justifying Liberal Democrat actions to an audience predominantly made up of party activists – why does he feel the need to defend the government’s record to a room of loyalists? Perhaps he was just expecting a bigger audience.

To be fair to Baker, he is often refreshingly frank for a politician. His description of his party’s transition from a party of opposition to a party of government is in equal parts insightful and honest. He admits that the Liberal Democrats have been playing “catch up” in office, lacking the Tories’ experience of holding power. His message on tuition fees is delivered from a similar stance. He is clear that as a party of protest they naively “over-promised – it wasn’t done cynically,” and also hesitantly reveals – “I don’t know if this is public knowledge or not” – that Nick Clegg had personally argued against the scrapping of tuition fees as party policy. Red lines will be drawn for the 2015 manifesto: “Lessons have been learnt,” he assures us.

He also gives us a glimpse of the coalition’s unusual working relationship. Baker describes Theresa May as competent, a “strong character”. But he reveals that although they have a reasonable working relationship, he had to hold a candid talk with her on joining the Home Office, insisting that it was Tory sources who had ordered the press smears on his promotion, regardless of her denial.

Baker is self-professedly on the left wing of the Liberal Democrats. He is undeniably uncomfortable working so closely with the Conservatives, but the experience of coalition seems to have brought them together, forcing a level of collegiality in spite of their fundamental differences. His assessment of Labour is scathing: “My respect for the Labour party has really gone downhill since being in government.”

He is noncommittal when pressed on who he’d rather work with after the next election, but the tone of his speech - “they’re far more tribal than the Tories…I don’t particularly relish the idea of being in government with Labour after election” – seems to suggest a marked preference for more of the same.

Baker is keen to stress the progressive nature of the “Lib Dem stamp” on government, in contrast to the Tories, who he claims are “becoming the nasty party once again” in the eyes of the public. On Nick Boles’ idea of a National Liberal ticket to run joint Tory/Lib Dem candidates in 2015 his verdict is unequivocal: “It’s not going to happen…how dare you take the word liberal! Liberal’s the best word in politics.”

The Liberal Democrats are though undeniably a changed party, no longer the anti-establishment option that provided the base for much of their support. In Baker’s view this is not necessarily a bad thing: he points out that the myth that a Liberal Democrat vote is a wasted one has been dispelled.

“I don’t think we’re going to take the country by storm at the next election,” he concedes. But, despite persistently abysmal polling, he is cautiously optimistic: “[We will] keep what we’ve got, by and large.”

If he’s right, we had better get used to the idea of a Liberal Democrat government; with the polls so tight, it is not inconceivable that coalition politics in Britain might be here to stay. Given the poor attendance, though, it seems that, in Cambridge at least, his party have got their work cut out to convince the electorate of their right to remain, or even, in fact, of the right to have their case heard.