There is a well known political maxim (or at least there ought to be) which states that, “the party faithful are the last people who should be consulted upon their choice of leader” – the point being that it is to crucial swing voters that the leader must appeal, not to committed party members. Of course the membership may attempt this calculation themselves, but the result often comes out a little skewed. So it was that the Conservatives made a whole series of amusing blunders and misjudgements regarding the leadership, largely on account of an internal obsession over Europe, before finally settling on the undeniable charms of the boy Cameron.
And so it was that Sir Menzies Campbell was duly elected last year, polling an initial 45% of the vote on a turnout of 72% (a worryingly low figure incidentally which suggests to me that at least a quarter of the membership might be dead). What followed has been a frankly embarrassing succession of glib and hollow performances, wholly lacking in flair, imagination, or lightness of touch. The unvarying sombre and humourless intonation, perfectly suited no doubt to his former role of commenting upon unfolding catastrophe in the Middle East, now simply fails to inspire. In short, he has become an electoral liability.
Without doubt, the biggest single disappointment has been at Prime Minister’s Questions. Ever since he rose in January 2006 to enquire why one in five schools are without a permanent head teacher, Sir Ming’s performances have been irredeemably lame. He should silence the house when he rises to speak; instead the members typically groan and snigger, and not without reason. While Cameron hits the target on a regular basis, Ming routinely causes the Prime Minister no difficulty whatsoever. Even John Prescott is a more effective performer in his own inimitable way.
Take last week’s effort, on the day before the elections. “The President made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques, and the Tories voted it through.” Was that supposed to be the killer blow intended to deliver the goods last Thursday? Leaving to one side the questionable relevance of Iraq to a nation with rubbish collection uppermost on its mind, the delivery was weak and unconvincing, and it wasn’t even framed as a question – just a regurgitated line from the Harrogate conference speech. Blair swatted him away easily as he does every time.
Then of course there is the vexed question of his age. Sir Ming is older today than Margaret Thatcher was at the time when she left office. He could be 74 by the end of the next parliament, taking us into Ronald Reagan territory. Perhaps you consider these comparisons to be somewhat irrelevant, seeing as Ming stands absolutely no chance of ever becoming Prime Minister. Well fine, but that’s exactly what the electorate will conclude too. In fact it’s not unlike having an alcoholic for party leader; in either case the message is much the same: vote for us, we’re the joke party – Lib Dems cannot win here!
Yet what makes all of this so unbearably frustrating is that we are fortunate enough to possess within our ranks a real star – an impressive and fluid performer, a successful businessman and expert economist – I speak of the member for Eastleigh, Christopher Huhne. While Sir Ming has been gently crumbling before our eyes, Huhne has emerged as a punchy and authoritative voice on the environment. But it is his broader experience and economic competence, not to mention a mastery of the broadcast and print media, which could see him seriously outmanoeuvre the opposition, given half a chance.
For a taste of what we are all missing, take a look at this interview for 18 Doughty Street. Huhne talks effortlessly for a whole hour on politics, history, and economics. It’s a relaxed and assured performance, a real pleasure to listen to, genuinely informative and humorous. I simply cannot imagine Sir Ming communicating with such an easy virtuosity. But more to the point, I can’t imagine David Cameron talking like that either. Sure, Cameron is great in front of the camera, that is until we come to detailed questions of policy – then it’s all furrowed brows and carefully scripted responses.
But now Cameron is set on a clear course for number ten, while the Liberal Democrat dream is fading away. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires!
Laurence Boyce is a Lib Dem voter, not a member or activist . . . yet.