Saturday, 19 May 2007

How Do You Solve a “Problem” like Ming (part 1) ?

Ever since he became leader in the spring of 2006, there has been an undercurrent of discontent within Liberal Democrat circles regarding the leadership of Sir Menzies Campbell. In the last fortnight, since the local elections, that undercurrent has grown and with a Populus poll showing 54% of Liberal Democrat voters wanting him NOT to be leader, it is clear that Sir Menzies and the Party faces some difficult questions.

The removal of Charles Kennedy was ham-fisted and amateurish on all sides. I have always been of the view that Charles should have stood down after the 2005 General Election and allowed the Party to choose a new leader. Unfortunately, as with Margaret Thatcher, Iain Duncan-Smith and arguably Tony Blair, he outstayed his welcome and refused to leave of his own volition. In the end, newspaper stories concerning his drinking made his position untenable and he had to go.

Charles Kennedy is widely liked both within and outside Liberal Democrat circles but, as David Cameron may yet find out, the man you would happily have a drink with or have as a dinner-party guest is not necessarily the man who would want to run the country.

Kennedy had the good fortune to lead the Party at a unique time of Conservative weakness between 1999 and 2005. No Tory will want to be reminded of the disasters of the 2001 election and the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith. Nor do many Tories relish being reminded of their performance in the period preceding the Iraq Invasion. However, the election of David Cameron combined with a significant series of disasters for the Blair Government to transform politics. A resurgent Conservative Party requires a different response.

I believe that Sir Menzies ought not to have been a leadership contender in 2006. Arguably, he could and perhaps should have challenged for the leadership in 1999 when Paddy Ashdown stood down. The Parliamentary Party splits clearly between the pre and post 1997 contingents. The election was the time for the post-1997 contingent to take over and there are any number of capable performers including Chris Huhne, Paul Burstow and Andrew George.

The election of Sir Menzies showed us still in a “pre-1997” mindset and the onslaught on the Conservatives demonstrates this. Whatever we may think of the Conservative Party in the backwoods, David Cameron at least has showed a willingness to move on from the disaster of the Major/Hague/Duncan Smith years and has been prepared to re-invent the party and modify its policies and principles.

The response of the Liberal Democrats to the Conservative re-invention has been in many ways weaker than it was to the re-invention of Labour by Blair in the mid-90s. Back in the mid-90s, as the Major Government stumbled and stuttered its way to disaster, Paddy Ashdown recognised that to be part of the forces of change was a more appropriate response than simple equidistance. The Liberal Democrats were, by 1997, a clearly anti-Tory party and shared in the fruits of the Conservative collapse,

David Cameron has had his luck and is for me a weak and brittle character. His performance under fire has been moderate and he has enjoyed the good fortune of being the beneficiary of the implosion of his two principal opponents since 2005. With the election of Gordon Brown, the test will begin for Cameron. I believe he will be found wanting but that doesn’t regrettably mean the Conservatives may not win the next election.

Of far greater relevance is the fact that the Conservatives are changing and coming out with thinking that marks them out as the more “progressive” of the two other main parties. As a progressive Party in our own right, it makes sense for the Liberal Democrats to be seen as equally willing to embrace new ideas and accept the need for reform. It is of course worth saying that much of the Cameronite agenda has been stolen from the Liberal Democrats but that doesn’t matter. When Sir Menzies spoke of the “terms” for working with Labour, he betrayed that progressive agenda and put us in the minds of many voters “in bed” with Labour. No one in the 1990s could have accused Paddy Ashdown of being “in bed” with John Major.

Now, I know that there is unlikely to be a Liberal Democrat – Conservative coalition after the next election. That said, there will and have been areas such as Nick Hurd’s Sustainable Communities Bill, where common ground exists. To adopt a policy of total hostility and opposition to the Conservatives would be foolish now and more so in the run-up to an election. The Liberal Democrats have to be a distinctive and independent voice, of course, but we also have to recognise that the zeitgeist is changing and that while there is no stomach for Thatcherism, a desire does exist for a slackening of the authoritarian state. The irony is that this is what liberals have always wanted and believed in. The fact that someone in a blue rosette agrees with us may be unsettling but that doesn’t make him any less worthy of support.

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