The case for Sir Ming

by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2006

I’m not going to nail my colours to the mast at this early stage – declare in haste, repent at leisure (just ask David Willetts) – but Andrew Rawnsley’s analysis in today’s Observer is extremely persuasive:

The stability, authority and unity candidate is Sir Menzies Campbell. It is a testimony to the respect in which he is held that he enjoys the support of so many MPs as well as two former leaders. That is not necessarily a selling point with all of his party members. Talk of a Ming dynasty makes him look like the establishment candidate and Lib Dems are a nonconformist lot.

He has the advantages of being the acting leader. He also suffers the disadvantages, as was illustrated by the merciless Labour and Tory mockery of his debut at Prime
Minister’s Questions. It was written up as his ‘David Davis moment’, which really it wasn’t. Sir Menzies is already suffering from the media’s lust for knocking down favourites.

He can come over as one of the last of the patricians. But the Savile Row tailoring is actually a bit deceiving. He went to Hillhead High in Glasgow, a school considerably less posh than either Eton or Fettes. Though the bright young thrusters on the right of his party are backing him, Sir Menzies is not one of them. He may not be a high tax and spender, but he is a recognisable product of the more collectivist traditions of Scotland. He used to argue for the renationalisation of the railways.

When Paddy Ashdown was leading the party and desperate to inject its economic policies with more authority, he tried to persuade Sir Menzies to become their shadow chancellor. He wouldn’t do it, perhaps scared that he would not be as impressive in that brief. One thing he will need to prove is that he can be as engaged on domestic policy as he has been with international affairs.

I have said it myself – he is old enough to be David Cameron’s father – but his age can be turned to his advantage. He could counter that David Cameron is callow enough to be Sir Menzies’s son. For a Conservative party trying to rejuvenate its appeal, it made huge sense to select a young leader. The Lib Dems’ problem is their credibility gap. There is a strong case that, for them, an older leader is precisely what they need to convey gravitas.

I doubt that Sir Menzies would march the Lib Dems off in any startling new directions. They would neither lunge to the left nor lurch to the right. That is being counted against him on the grounds that he is too much the predictably safe choice. Authority and certainty seem to me to be a powerful asset in a fluxing and risk-strewn political environment for the third party.

Sir Walter Menzies Campbell, CBE, QC, MP. The very name makes it possible to imagine him sitting in the Liberal cabinet of 1905 alongside Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. At least that makes him a Liberal Democrat you can imagine sitting in a cabinet.