High Principle, Low Politics: Menzies Campbell Was Forced out of the Lib Dem Leadership by Whispers and Plots. How Does He Feel about the Party's New Generation?

Article excerpt

Gordon Brown is not alone in regretting his failure to call an election in October 2007. When, as a new prime minister, he showed characteristic caution - despite double-digit leads in the opinion polls - and backed away from a snap election, it destroyed not just his long-term prospects but the short-term chances of Menzies Campbell's survival.

Elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in March 2006, Campbell hadn't enjoyed a Brown-style honeymoon, and questions about his leadership abilities persisted 18 months into the job. A general election in autumn 2007 would have given him the opportunity to re-establish his position at the top of the party.

However, it was not to be and with continuing rumblings about his age - what he calls the media's "fixation with trivia" - and agitation from within the party, Campbell, then 66, knew that his moment had passed. "Could I take the constant references to my age for another two years? Could the party?" he wrote in his 2008 autobiography. The questions were rhetorical.

If he feels bitter four years on, the signs are difficult to detect. In any case, the MP for North East Fife is probably too busy to worry. He sits on both the foreign and intelligence select committees and a year ago was sounded out by David Cameron for the role, eventually taken by Peter Gibson, as chair of the inquiry into alleged UK complicity in torture. In September last year, he joined the 2012 Olympic Games board. It's an appropriate appointment for a man who ran the 200 metres at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and held the British record for the 100 metres (10.2 seconds) between 1967 and 1974.

For five days in May 2010, he had the ear of Nick Clegg - his successor as Lib Dem leader -who was weighing up an offer to join David Cameron's Conservative Party in government. It's a scenario he had been considering for some time. "When Gordon Brown nearly had an election, I was already thinking ahead to what the consequences might be if the result wasn't an outright victory," he tells me when we meet in his cramped but perfectly appointed parliamentary office, with its views of the Thames and Big Ben. Campbell, in a blue jacket and signature pink-and-sky-blue-striped tie, sits on the green bench that fills the window bay.

He says that, for reasons of "high principle and low politics", full coalition was Clegg's only option - high principle because a minority government would not have assured the markets that Britain was serious about addressing the financial crisis; low politics because the Lib Dems were not sufficiently "robust financially" to fight a likely second election.

Poisoned chalice

Whatever the motivation, the price of coalition has been electoral collapse. Despite signs that the party's poll ratings are recovering from the lows of the spring (Campbell concedes that the uplift is "very gentle"), the Lib Dems were humiliated a month ago in an Edinburgh council by-election. The result mirrored defeats in the local and devolved assemblies elections in May, particularly in Scotland, where the Lib Dems' ratings - below 10 per cent in both constituency and list votes - were unexpected (their coalition partner did markedly better).

Before the election, Campbell had been bullish. He told one national newspaper that Scotland was different because of its "sensible voting system" (the additional member vote) and because "devolution creates a different political context". Such optimism proved unfounded.

May also brought heavy defeat in the referendum on electoral reform. Victory would have signalled progress towards a fully proportional system and would have lifted party spirits. In the event, not only was a move to the Alternative Vote defeated by a margin of two to one, but the campaign that preceded it was characterised by rancour. At the time, Campbell described some of the exchanges between coalition partners as "incendiary". Four months on, he is more sanguine. …