Wanted: Leader with a Ruthless Streak; Ming Campbell Continues to Underperform. as Senior Lib Dems Jockey for Position, They Ask Whether Their Man Is Too Weak or Whether Their Party Is Going through Its Usual Midterm Disappearing Trick
Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)
What is wrong with the Liberal Democrats? The Labour Party is in a state of possibly terminal free fall, but why isn't the centre party, with its impeccable anti-war credentials, its pioneering stance on the environment and a consistent line on civil liberties, mopping up? The Cameron factor is no longer enough to explain the singular failure of the Lib Dems to capitalise on their best election performance in 80 years. Nor is it sufficient to say that they are still struggling to come to terms with dumping their most successful leader in recent times. No one seriously believed Charles Kennedy could go on, not even Charles Kennedy.
In early March it will be a year since Sir Menzies Campbell won control of his party; plenty of time to get over the understandable, although fairly extreme, nerves of the early days in post. But somehow his leadership has never quite gathered momentum.
According to the latest YouGov polling, Ming now has a personal rating of -24. This is as nothing compared to Tony Blair's -43 or Gordon Brown's -37. Yet it is a long way short of David Cameron's -10 (no senior politician has a positive score but, bizarrely, William Hague comes closest).
Ming has never had anything like the popularity his predecessor enjoyed with the British people, even when the publicity surrounding Charlie's drinking was at its height. One member of the high command told me that they draw comfort from Politicalbetting.com (fast becoming a mainstay of the political classes), where Ming is at -11, compared to Cameron's -9. This is hardly the stuff of inspirational leadership.
Despite his gravitas, Campbell has never stamped his authority on the party. The two distinctive policies the Lib Dems have developed in the past year--green taxes and the demand for a deadline to pull out of Iraq--were both opposed by Campbell during his leadership campaign and can both be claimed by his surprise opponent, Chris Huhne.
There is a growing expectation that the party will treat Campbell as brutally as it did his predecessor if his performance doesn't show a marked improvement when Blair stands down. Perversely, the media's attention being so focused on the Prime Minister's problems with the cash-for-honours scandal makes it difficult for the third party to penetrate the public consciousness. But the Lib Dems' latest wheeze, an online manifesto consultation, was an example of that most unappealing hybrid: the dull gimmick. …