Thursday, May 18, 2006

The IDS Factor

Much to the disappointment of Labour and Tory partisans everywhere, Simon Hughes has shown the first move towards sticking the knife in Ming Campbell's back. I can't blame him at all; had I been defeated in a leadership election only to be treated to anaemic performances every week at PMQs, to have disastrous council results, and to show little sign of coming within a mile of landing a punch on either Cameron or Blair, then I would want him out of the way pretty soon, too.

My sometime co-blogger, Richard, posts on his own site a defence of Campbell, and calls for him to be given more time:

Only in the Westminster bubble are problems like Menzies' fatal. The British public are remarkably forgiving and willing to let people grow into roles. I urge other Lib Dems to do the same.

The difficulty is that politicians operate within the Westminster bubble. I have written in the past (although Richard has since erased it from the web) about how the BBC coverage of politics is absolutely vital in moderating public opinion. Such is the distrust of politicians that it takes an independent, respected figure like Nick Robinson or Andy Marr to stand in front of the cameras and tell the public whether their latest ideas are credible or not. Failure to convince the lobby journalists is fatal for political figures.

What is notable, however, is how few Lib Dems have been willing to show their support for Ming Campbell publically. Iain Dale wrote a roundup a couple of weeks ago in which he looked at the muted, tepid response to local election results. In the meantime, I've been unable to find any Liberal Democrat who will give his full support to Campbell. Their responses, in fact, remind me far more of the reaction given to another recent political leader - Iain Duncan Smith.

If you asked Tories in 2002 or 2003, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could give support. Almost from the outset of his leadership, he was considered a laughing stock, and every attempt to give him a personality, a vision, or just some sort of respectability abjectly failed. There have been few political moments as cringeworthy as his last party conference speech - "The Quiet Man is here to stay, and he's turning up the volume".

What you would hear, however, is a dogged determination to support the leader that the party had. "He's our man, we've got to stick by him". When presented with a list of other prominent party names, however, few were willing to say that they would perform worse than IDS. The same is happening with Ming (although as yet I haven't run through the LibDem front bench with people; the lack of talent may well show through in such an exercise).

Quite simply, I haven't come across anyone yet who can convince me that they believe Ming Campbell is the right man to lead the Liberal Democrats to further electoral successes. This isn't a question of being given time to settle into a role - it is a question of being taken remotely seriously. At PMQs, Campbell is visibly nervous, and no longer has the guts to stand up for more than ten seconds to explain the premises on which his questions are based. There's a credibility factor at stake here, and no-one takes Campbell seriously. Just the same way that no-one warmed to IDS.

Campbell's political death may be a slow, drawn-out process. No doubt there will be whispering campaigns, but too many people will be scared of being seen as the disloyal assassin. But continuing with him as leader will be an unseemly business for the Liberal Democrats. He is a figure that cannot be taken seriously as a political force. And until people are willing to say that openly, then their electoral fortunes will surely suffer. It can take a while to shake off that kind of negative momentum.