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Monday, September 17, 2007

A question of leadership

It is the question on everybody's lips but only the media and the bloggers are talking about it openly, what do we do with a problem like Ming?

Here we have a leader who is fostering a Team Ming approach by encouraging young talented MPs to come forward and show what they can do, who has refocussed the party's organisation to the extent that we are even paying Conference stewards this year (it is the small things that matter), and who has directed a fundamental policy review that is putting the party at the radical edge of debate on taxation, the environment and civil liberties. Despite all of that the public are still not warming to him and we continue to underperform in the polls.

If Sir Menzies Campbell is the wizened old magician, it is to Chris Rennard that the party will turn to pull our rabbits out of the hat. Under his direction the Liberal Democrats have consistently improved their performance at successive general elections, often winning additional seats despite the overall vote. What has been missing is a narrative that will help us in those seats where we are not pouring in mass resources and campaigning expertise so as to generate the target seats of the future. As James Graham notes, despite all the policy proposals, this is something that we have yet to fully develop, but we are getting there.

Just when you thought that all was lost for our beleagured leader along comes Tim Hames of The Times (of all papers) on a white charger to tell us to leave the boss alone. He quite rightly tells us that dumping Ming would not help:

The truth is that the difficulty for the Liberal Democrats is essentially strategic. There is no longer the political space available for them to hold the same share of the vote that they achieved at the past general election and they are simultaneously suffering from both an invisibility and an identity crisis. Their most profound need now is not a new leader but some new and memorable slogans.

It is the lot of a third party in the British system that it is always vulnerable, periodically endangered and occasionally (as the Liberal Party was in the 1950s) critically endangered. If Labour or the Conservatives find a fresh leader, shift their position on the ideological spectrum, or trumpet new policies, they can affect their standing with the electorate (if not always to their advantage). The same is hardly true for the Liberal Democrats. They are dependent on the actions of the other two parties.

Interesting as this I and many other activists will refuse to accept that we are the helpless victims of political currents. I think it is essentially right that Ming is blameless for our current be-calming mid-river and that events have left us in need of fresh impetus. If we can wrap our current policy revival around a convincing narrative and get out on doorsteps to sell it then it may well be possible to start paddling upstream once more, making Chris Rennard's conjuring trick far easier.

Dominic Lawson's piece in The Indy
earlier this month is also largely supportive.

n fact, Sir Ming is a bit of a throwback to an earlier, more innocent political age. He has never knowingly uttered a "soundbite". He thinks that spin is something that should be left to cricketers. If interviewed, he tries to answer the question rather than deliver pre-cooked clichés. When Sir Ming appears on public debating programmes such as Question Time or Any Questions – something the leaders of the two main parties regard as beneath them – he seldom fails to impress with the courtesy and thoughtfulness of his contributions. He is – right down to the dazzling shine on his lace-up shoes – a gent of the old school, something which once would have appealed to The Daily Telegraph (and may still do to its readers). Menzies Campbell has something else over the other party leaders: he asked the right questions – in public – over the invasion of Iraq. The four questions he put in the critical House of Commons debate in September 2002 were not answered then and still resonate today: "What is the exit strategy? Who will replace Saddam Hussein? How long would coalition troops be required to remain in Iraq? Will Iraq split up?"

It's true that Campbell is not, in general, a confident performer in the House of Commons; but he can show a feline savagery when provoked. I especially enjoyed his put-down of Quentin Davies during another debate on Iraq, when that extraordinarily self-important backbencher kept interrupting him: "I am sorry for the Honourable Gentleman if these matters require a level of intellectual engagement that he finds difficult or embarrassing."

I can't imagine any of the contenders to the throne carrying off that rebuke.

- Frank Little
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