15 October 2007

So long, Sir Ming (Updated)

In the past hour, Sir Menzies Campbell's resignation as Leader of the UK Liberal Democrats has been announced. The party has been in the doldrums of late, with poor poll ratings, weak results (and a loss of influence) in Scotland and Wales, and loss of profile to Labour and the Tories.

I do not believe that Sir Ming's departure will solve any of this. Ming was undoubtedly a part of the problem, but replacing him won't solve it. The main difficulty is that the LibDems occupy the same crowded policy ground as Brown's Labour Party and the Cameron Tories.

This is an instant handicap for them: they are the third party, not the Government or the principal Opposition and potential Government-in-waiting. Therefore, if they offer the same as the other two, they have nothing to offer people. On that course, there is nothing that the LibDems can say to get people to choose them over the other two parties that can actually form a government.

We saw this in Scotland in May: even parties with distinctive programmes crashed and burned as the contest became polarised between Labour and the SNP. The Tories and LibDems saw their Regional Votes fall (though their Constituency Votes went up). The Greens are lucky to have two MSPs. The SSP and Solidarity didn't help their own case by turning on each other, but even if they'd stuck together, they'd have only had one MSP. Of the other independents, only Margo MacDonald survived. Dennis Canavan retired following disasters in his family life, but those who did stand again suffered: Jean Turner fell to third in the seat she won in 2003; John Swinburne's SSCUP sunk without trace; Campbell Martin's challenge in Cunninghame North came to nothing, and given his former affiliation, it's a safe bet that the only change in outcome if he hadn't stood would have been to increase Kenny Gibson's majority.

In the absence of distinctive policies that would really make the LibDems stand out, a strong personalitiy might have done. Charles Kennedy was noticeable. Ming, sadly, was not. The problem is that none of his likely successors are, either.

Nick Clegg is seen as a favourite, and he is seen as well-known among LibDems, and is a key rent-a-quote LibDem spokesman, but he's seen as on the right of the Party. Will he sit well with activists? Also, he threw his hat in the ring at Conference, when there wasn't a vacancy. That won't go down well.

Chris Huhne is seen as a possibility, after a stronger-than-expected showing in the last Leadership Election. He has a good reputation within the party on environmental policy - fast becoming a key area - but is dull, dull, dull. At a time when the thrid party's leader needs oomph, he just doesn't have it. (UPDATE: there are rumblings that people may be less than impressed with Huhne's supporters, accusing them of briefing against Campbell during Conference)

Vincent Cable is the Acting Leader. He may well be tempted to stand, but in many ways, Cable succeeding Campbell would be a replacement of like with like.

Simon Hughes is fast becoming the LibDems' Kenneth Clarke - present in the last two Leadership Elections. Could he try again? Perhaps, but let's be honest, did Ken Clarke ever win? After his third place behind Chris Huhne, is he really a credible contender? (UPDATE: Hughes has ruled himself out, but Steve Webb, also from the Left of the Party, and Hughes' last campaign manager, may throw his hat in)

Lembit Opik just quit as Welsh LibDem Leader, and he suggested that he'd be up for the UK LibDem Presidency. Could he change his plans? Perhaps, but he is a figure of fun in the Party - if Hughes is the LibDems' Ken Clarke, Opik is the LibDems' Boris Johnson - and his personal life has become embarrassing to them. If he becomes Leader, the press will tear what's left of his reputation to shreds within a week, and Brown and Cameron will dance over his political grave.

Could Charles Kennedy try to stage a comeback? Only if he's a complete idiot. The Party were very quick to turn on him: during the Election campaign he was wonderful, but when results weren't quite as high as they'd hoped, and when the polls started to dip again, out came the knives. When Ming (seen as one of the architects of Kennedy's downfall, and his rather tepid expressions of support for Kennedy were remarked upon) failed to turn things around, the chatter started again, and the Elder Statesman of Liberalism became a dithering old man in the chatter of the LibDem top brass.

One other point: when was the last time a resigning Leader didn't announce his intentions in public himself? Rather than Ming on the steps of LibDem HQ, we got Simon Hughes and Vincent Cable announcing it on his behalf. Obviously Ming didn't want to make the announcement, but for this to happen makes you wonder if he wanted to take the action that was announced. And the answer comes: probably not.

By the way... Opik quit as Welsh LibDem Leader over the weekend, and Mike German, the Party's Leader in the Welsh Assembly, has said he'll quit in 2008. Campbell has gone. How long can Nicol Stephen last?

UPDATE: The Party has worked out a timetable for the successor:

Tomorrow (Tuesday): Nominations open
31 October: Nominations close
21 November: Ballot papers issued
15 December: Deadline to receive ballot papers
17 December: Result announced, new Leader chosen


Anonymous said...

"How long can Nicol Stephen last?

UPDATE: The Party has worked out a timetable for the successor:"

Can't Tavish even let Nicol resign before he does that?

Sir Philip Johnston-Higham said...

Opik is the LibDem's Boris? Without the panache. Still, who needs panache with cheeky girls?