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Commentary 321 – September 2007
11 September 2007 (12:35:03)

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 wished for.

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 deservedly so.

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 coherent.

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 crisis.

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 blame.

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.

HANCOCK’S HALF-HOUR

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 absurd.

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 make waves.

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 pro-referendum faction.

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 issue.

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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