Reasons to be cheerful… 1, 2, 3

by Stephen Tall on January 8, 2007

At last, at long last – a balanced and fair comment piece in The Times from Tim Hames that takes a longer-term view of the Lib Dems’ prospects (in sharp contrast to the doom-mongering unsurprisingly favoured by our political opponents, and occasionally given credence by party members of a glass-half-full disposition).

His article starts off a tad dodgily – “Sir Menzies took to the airwaves last week to deny that there are MPs who want [an early end] to his leadership.” As Liberal Review has already noted, Ming was simply responding, with his customarily courteous brusqueness briskness, to a question posed by BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme in a wide-ranging interview. That it was the only aspect highlighted by the media is indicative of journalists’ (and readers’) preference for personality politics over issue of substance.

This newest bout of speculation is, in any case, based on this evidence (according to the BBC): “An unnamed Lib Dem MP [who] was last week said to have criticised his leadership.” Which leaves me staggeringly underwhelmed. Unattributable single sources have a pretty murky history, as The Today Programme knows only too well. Besides, it would be astonishing if not one of our 63 MPs had anything negative to say about Ming’s leadership – that’s a long way away from anyone preparing to mount a palace coup.

And it’s on just such a remote possibility that Mr Hames’ analysis is most shrewd, and should be carefully considered by any party member thinking the Lib Dems should make our opponents’ year, and be panicked into changing leaders. He gives three impeccably cogent reasons why such a move would be foolhardy:

1. “Of all the years in this decade when a change in the Liberal Democrat leadership would win scant attention, this is it. Compared with the arrival of a new prime minister and a wholesale turnover in the Cabinet and Downing Street staff, swapping a Campbell for a Clegg would be utterly inconsequential.”

2. “… the publicity obtained by the Liberal Democrats and their performance at the polls are not intimately related. The chances are that Sir Menzies will have much to smile about after the May elections. His party will do well in Scotland, better in Wales and should pick up council seats in urban England. If there is a parliamentary by-election almost anywhere this year, they will be in the running.”

And most importantly, and most positively:

3. “The Liberal Democrats, steered by Vince Cable, their Treasury spokesman, have framed a more coherent stance on tax and may well have settled on sizeable and credible cuts in central government spending by the time of their annual conference. If the Conservative policy exercise does not work well, the contrast could be striking. It will make it harder for their opponents to claim, as they invariably do, that Lib Dem sums “do not add up” or that if voters were to deliver a hung parliament they would risk placing into partial power a party that is the political equivalent of the Addams Family.

“In short, there is more to the Liberal Democrats than Mr Öpik’s libido. And despite the absence of Sir Menzies from television screens nightly, the party is in a more robust condition today than it was when Mr Kennedy fell so spectacularly 12 months ago.”

We should be careful not to assume the complacent assumption that ‘Steady as she goes’ is all the party needs to do. But we should be equally resistant to succumbing to the media-spun line that ‘We’re sinking’. 2006 was tough; but, given how it began, it could have been a lot worse for the Lib Dems. Our task now is to make 2007 a year to remember for all the right reasons.