WHISPER IT NOT
In the eighteen months since Ming Campbell was elected leader of
the Liberal Democrats, his performance has not been everything one might have
Some of the wounds have been self-inflicted, notably the dithering over Gordon
Brown’s poisoned chalice of government posts for certain Lib Dem peers.
Other issues regarding the leadership are the consequence of deep-seated
problems in the party, which predate Campbell’s term of office and will take
time to turn round.
And there has been the sheer bad luck of there being no major political event or
issue that might have enabled Campbell to play to his strengths.
But however disappointed one might feel, there is nothing in Campbell’s conduct
that would remotely justify a second leadership election in as many years, with
all the attendant traumas of an ill-tempered coup followed by another
uninspiring leadership contest. It would make the party a laughing stock, and
Does anyone seriously believe that such an episode would lift the party out of
the doldrums? Apparently some members do.
Anonymous ‘parliamentarians’ have been briefing the press with talk of a “pearl
handled revolver”. This whispering campaign may be a misguided attempt to
benefit one of Campbell’s possible successors, or it may simply be loose talk.
Whatever the motives, it is doing no one in the party any favours.
Liberator is no stranger to criticism of the party leader. We’ve been doing it
since Jeremy Thorpe’s time. It has never been our business to issue bromides
but, in our defence, Liberator’s overriding goal has always been the successful
promotion of Liberalism and our criticisms have at least been above-board and
But there is no point criticising the leader when you have no constructive
alternatives and your proposed course of action would plunge the party into
And it is ironic that, yet again, the damaging publicity is emanating from
senior members of the party rather than the ‘grassroots activists’, ‘radical
factions’ and ‘loony elements’ that such leading figures habitually prefer to
Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of the current whispering campaign is that the
criticism focuses on the leader’s staid personality. What do people expect?
Campbell is who he is, and the party knew that when it voted for him. Indeed,
the avuncular ‘steady pair of hands’ was precisely what the party wanted after
the downfall of Kennedy. There is no use complaining about that now.
Barring accidents, there will be no change of leadership this side of the next
general election. It is an open secret that Campbell will stand down shortly
after that election. In the meantime, there is nothing to gain by stoking
rumours of a leadership coup.
By all means, make constructive criticisms – Liberator will certainly continue
to do so. But anonymous ‘parliamentarians’ ought to know better than to indulge
in futile gestures that merely play into the hands of the opposition.
One thing that has not helped Ming Campbell’s leadership is the
persistent rumour of a ‘comeback’ by his predecessor Charles Kennedy. It is
never precisely clear what such a ‘comeback’ might entail, other than gratuitous
publicity at conference that detracts from the party’s goals.
Some media commentators still entertain the fantasy that Kennedy might one day
resume the leadership. But Kennedy has shown himself incapable of leadership
even when stone cold sober, and the idea that the party might invite him back is
Still, journalists at conference seeking some bogus controversy are bound to
report whatever Kennedy says in terms of a “challenge” to the leadership. This
wouldn’t matter if Kennedy remained silent but unfortunately he has chosen to
Speaking at the ‘Festival of Politics’ in Edinburgh (23 August), he refused to
rule out a future challenge for the leadership. Then BBC2’s Newsnight (31
August) reported that the Liberal Democrats were divided over whether to back a
referendum on the EU treaty. Kennedy was said to be supporting the
The only Lib Dem MP interviewed in the programme was Mike Hancock, who stated
not only that he supported a referendum but also that, if there were one, he
would vote no.
Why? It is clear that a referendum on the treaty would be a proxy for the more
basic issue of Britain’s EU membership but without the force to settle that
One can only assume that Hancock either (a) wants to remain a member of the EU
but only if it is run inefficiently under the old rules, or (b) would rather
withdraw from the EU altogether. Either way, it would seem that Hancock is out
of tune with his party’s internationalist spirit.
Kennedy and Hancock’s behaviour suggests that Lib Dem MPs are all over the shop.
The party would not be in this mess if it had the courage to be open and
unequivocal in its pro-Europeanism. There is no mileage in competing for the
UKIP vote and the party should stop trying.
If Campbell wants to demonstrate his leadership and silence Kennedy, he should
make an unashamed bid for the votes of the one-third of the electorate that has
remained solidly pro-European and which has no other party to which it can turn.
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