Looking for a bright spark

by Stephen Tall on January 12, 2006

Five days into the Lib Dem leadership campaign, what’s the story? Well, I’m no scientist, but let’s try a combustion analogy for size. There are three phases:

1. Pre-heating phase: when the unburned fuel – aka Charles Kennedy – is heated up to its flash point. I think it’s safe to say we’re though that phase now.

2. Distillation phase: when the mix of evolved flammable gases – let’s call them Campbell, Hughes and Oaten – with oxygen is ignited.

Well, we can scarcely complain about the oxygen of publicity in recent days. But I can’t help but feel that nothing yet has ignited. The three candidates’ names have been well trailed, and party members like me are now waiting to be wowed… and waiting.

(Though let’s clear one thing up right now: neither Campbell’s nor Hughes’s performance at yesterday’s PMQs should be held against them. The Commons was at its most pathetically, theatrically cheap; and the Prime Minister sank to the occasion with mastery. I wonder how many members of the public, if they read the following report from today’s Independent, would wonder at our good fortune in being represented by the Mother of Democracy:

Sir Menzies’s campaign suffered a setback when he appeared at Prime Minister’s Questions in his role as acting party leader. His attack on Tony Blair’s public service reforms backfired when he asked the Prime Minister to explain why one in five schools do not have a permanent head teacher. MPs roared with laughter and mocked him because the Liberal Democrats do not have a permanent head.)

Lib Dem members want a choice. The trouble is those whom many of us would most like to see contest this election – Nick Clegg and Susan Kramer – seem so far to have ruled themselves out.

Both were elected just eight months ago, but have vast experience beyond the Commons. (Far more so than that callow youth, Mr Cameron.) Both would bring a new dimension, a real sense of excitement, to this so far lacklustre campaign. I hope both, even at this stage, can be persuaded to throw their hats into the ring.

For, once we have that point of combustible ignition, we can look forward to the immediate release of a flaming energy that can produce both heat and light. We could do with a little warmth after the chilly last week, and I’m not talking about the weather.

And then we can look forward to the final, less phosphorescent, phase of our combustion:

3. Solid phase: when our fuel continues to glow, providing a steady level of energy.

All we need now is to find the bright spark who can be the Lib Dems’ fire-starter.