A tribute to Paul Keetch: Liberal Parliamentarian and Brexit campaigner

A tribute to Paul Keetch: Liberal Parliamentarian and Brexit campaigner

Paul Keetch, who died on 24th May 2017 at the age of 56, looked and sounded like the emblematic, conservative country gentlemen. He was handsome, vivacious and frequently outrageous, but typical – or conservative – he was not.

Though in appearance he cut a dash like a present-day Cavalier, in outlook he was a modern-day Roundhead – and with the zeal to match. Indeed, Paul made his mark in political life by setting himself against the views of an establishment that, through the important part he played, he helped defeat – twice – where it mattered: in the court of public opinion.

The first victory was over Iraq. As Liberal Democrat MP for Hereford between 1997 and 2010, Paul helped challenge, then change, both the Lib Dem leadership’s position on the Iraq War and – more importantly – public opinion from initial support for military action to resolute opposition.

Serving as the Lib Dem frontbench Defence spokesman in the Commons between 1999 and 2005, Paul loyally supported the then party leader Charles Kennedy, providing him backing to ensure other senior Lib Dem MPs – like many across the House in the lead-up to the war who perceived less political risk in supporting Tony Blair’s administration – united against the coming conflict.

Charles Kennedy provided the popular touch; Paul provided much-needed grit. The decision by the Lib Dems to stand apart from the Government and Official Opposition was, without doubt, crucial to transforming public opposition. It is hard to see how this would have happened without Paul.

The second of these victories was for Brexit. By 2016, Paul had been out of Parliament for six years. He had long been of the view that Britain should leave the European Union; indeed, he was never shy in expressing this opinion within and without the Liberal Democrat party.

Paul was far from being alone in holding his view. Long regarded as a uniformly Europhile party, a members-only opinion poll conducted by Lib Dem Voice in 2011 found 51 percent of those surveyed to be against ever closer union. Admittedly the number of members who – like Paul and I – wished Britain to depart the EU altogether was then, as now, small. But when there seemed to be no prospect at any time that an in-out referendum would ever be called, this appeared irrelevant to the wider political picture.

When the referendum did come, Paul threw himself into the action – and with great energy. Yet by 2016 it was abundantly clear that he was not a well man: he had fallen ill on a flight to Washington nearly ten years previously with heart problems; his personal affairs – into which he would occasionally, perhaps unintentionally, share glimpses – were evidently not as optimal as he would have liked.

No matter: Paul raised his head high above the trenches. He helped found – and chaired – Liberal Leave, the organisation affiliated to Vote Leave for Liberal Democrat members and supporters campaigning to leave the EU. He wrote op-eds; he leapt at the opportunity to be interviewed and make the case on TV; and he masterminded Liberal Leave’s venture into the Lib Dem 2016 Spring Conference, where the group’s presence bewildered and scandalised the gathering (and even attracted dozens of pledges of support, whispered under the breath). For Paul there was no contradiction in being both a Liberal Democrat and a Brexiteer. Indeed he would say – to anyone prepared to listen: “I do this not in spite of being a liberal, but because I am a liberal”.

Paul did of course attempt, valiantly, to secure wider support within the party for Liberal Leave, particularly amongst his former parliamentary colleagues. Unfortunately, it was not to be. More than a few made clear they backed the group’s and Vote Leave’s aims – but none were prepared to be as brave as Paul.

Though Liberal Leave was never expected to match the depth and numbers of Conservatives for Britain, or Labour Leave, hindsight suggests it may have held some importance – and this was to Paul’s credit. After Vote Leave had secured the status of official Leave campaign, it became public that the points system employed by the Electoral Commission to score each group had awarded designation to Vote Leave over Leave.EU by a single point. Paul regarded that to be “Liberal Leave’s point”. We might never know to which organisation this point should accurately be attributed but – undoubtedly – it deserved to be “Paul’s point”.

Though I never asked him, I have pondered if Paul may have stayed away from the Brexit fight had Charles Kennedy not passed away. Charles was not just Paul’s colleague: he was his friend (Paul was an usher at his wedding) and, with Charles a fervent believer in the EU, perhaps loyalty may have made Paul stand back from a leading role in the Leave campaign.

For that’s what Paul was. Loyal to his friends, and to his beliefs – whether they were fashionable or not. He was both a hail-fellow-well-met and a man who made a difference. Rest In Peace, Paul Keetch.