Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Significance of Ming: Part I

So, the big political news today is that Sir Menzies Campbell is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. I'm going to make one post today, on the significance of the choice for the Liberal Democrats and the broader political sphere; I will make one tomorrow on the lessons that political candidates and the blogosphere can learn from the way the campaign unfolded.

I must say, my position on Campbell is that he will not be an effective leader. He appeared statesmanlike over Iraq; but he was placed in a tremendously favourable position, given the heat on one side of that debate, and the media being determined to give a respectable political face to the anti-war side.

His performances in PMQs as stand-in leader may have helped his name recognition among members (thus working against Chris Huhne), but they have hardly been impressive. The format may not be favourable to the Liberal Democrats, but Campbell has failed to land a convincing punch on Blair. As the media attention is naturally grabbed by the Cameron-Blair battle at the dispatch box, he will have to improve massively to make an impact in the Commons.

That is a shame for him, because he must be one of the most uncharismatic figures in British politics at the moment (Gordon Brown rivalling him heavily). It has been said that leaders need some sort of "personality" to be electable - Campbell is somewhere between grandpa and old duffer. Somehow, I doubt that will appeal too much to the electorate.

Where there is hope depends on the Shadow Cabinet. Nick Clegg will no doubt be handsomely rewarded for his loyal support; this may in turn see a real policy rethink. That would be good for the party; the Lib Dems remain a party of protest, and aspirations above their current level of MPs are totally unrealistic unless they shed their image of local opportunists. I can't help but feel that the reason the South-East corridor flocked away from the Lib Dems at the last election was because people finally started looking at their policies on tax.

If Ming is going to act merely as a "safe pair of hands", then I think the Liberal Democrats will have big problems on their hands. Of course, to a certain extent I will reserve judgement until I've seen the coverage of the Spring Conference this weekend. But more of the same will only see the Lib Dems falter. They want to be taken seriously as a political party - now is the time to put up. There is significant room to gain off both Labour and the Conservatives, but that will require them being far more than a party of protest, or a House of Commons think tank. Somehow, I can't quite see Campbell being the leader with the energy needed to organise that thorough re-think.