Monday, October 15, 2007

The first casualty?

It doesn't look good for Ming Campbell: you can tell you're really in trouble when your colleagues start stabbing you in the front. In truth, when you're polling at 11-14% in opinion polls, and Electoral Calculus is still showing you with no seats whatsoever on a mythical universal swing, it's hardly a surprise that the knives should start coming out. There's a small problem, however: short of Sir Menzies doing the decent thing and toddling off to the library with a bottle of scotch and his Webley service revolver (standard issue in World War One, you know), it's hard to envisage the Liberal Democrats having the requisite blood lust to defenestrate a second leader in two years. Having fired one leader for self-induced infirmity, it would run the risk of seeming callous to do the same to another for his perfectly naturally-induced infirmity.
However, one feels that this is a bullet that has to be bitten as far as the Lib Dems are concerned. Their problem is simple: squeezed hard in the south by a Conservative Party that no longer looks hopeless and nasty, they are also not getting the better of the squeeze on the left. A lot of the disaffected Labour vote that flocked to the Lib Dems in 2005 seems to have drifted back to Brown. Denied the oxygen of publicity, largely because of the highlighted spat between Cameron and Brown and because the flurry over the election that wasn't concentrated on the Tories and Labour, the Lib Dems are drifting quietly under the radar. They need to stop this, but with Iraq diminishing as a matter of importance to voters, what do the Lib Dems have to catch attention?
Even if they do find the courage to depose Ming and replace him with, presumably, either Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems are not guaranteed a hearing. The Iraqi USP having faded, traditional Lib Dem areas like the environment are no longer being left open to them, while with the Tories having shed their 'nasty' tag, even the cosy jumper-wearing south may desert them. The Lib Dems need to find a selling point, and fast. But there lies the rub. The two prime candidates (and I suppose people like Simon Hughes on the extreme left wing of the party and David Laws on the extreme right) need to choose whether they are going to be a centre-right challenger to the Tories, or a leftist challenger to Labour. The smart money is on challenging the Tories - the so-called Orange-booker wing - but activists are unlikely to stand for it. The soul of the party would rather lead to the left of Labour - but is there room.
The tragedy is that, while Kennedy managed to be all things to all men, Campbell has managed to be nothing to anyone. The next leader will have to choose which road to take.

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