The Economist’s end-of-year report on Ming

by Stephen Tall on March 1, 2007

This week’s Bagehot column in the Economist carries a pretty fair assessment of the Lib Dem position one year into the Ming dynasty:

Nobody can say that Sir Menzies Campbell has had an easy first year as leader of his party. As poisoned chalices go, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats 12 months ago resembled something rustled up by Lucrezia Borgia on one of her more vengeful days. Yet this weekend many of the Lib Dems gathering in Harrogate for their spring conference sense that they may be closer to real power than at any time in living memory.

It notes the well documented difficulties Ming encountered in his first few months:

  • The high-profile so-called scandals which undermined the party’s credibility;
  • His first few jittery performances at Prime Minister’s Questions;
  • A disappointingly mixed set of local election results.

And then it contrasts this turmoil with the progress the party has made in the last six months:

Since late summer, however, things have slowly got better. Helped by the fact that nobody in his right mind could contemplate the purgatory of another leadership contest before the next election, the Lib Dems put on a decent show of unity at their party conference in September. They also managed to win some positive coverage for the “green-tax switch” that allowed them to drop a damaging commitment to raising the upper rate of income tax to 50% in favour of environment-friendly taxes. With parliament’s return after the long recess, Sir Menzies no longer looked quite so out of his depth at PMQs.

Over the past few months he has also been lucky. There is now rather less interest in his shortcomings than in those of Gordon Brown, while Tony Blair’s long goodbye has been dominated by foreign policy—in particular, by the attempts on both sides of the Atlantic to find a way out of the Iraq morass. That has played to Sir Menzies’s strengths and reminded voters that the Lib Dems were the only major party to oppose the war.

In January, egged on by some of his colleagues, Sir Menzies took the risk of calling for British forces to quit Iraq by October. Although he earned some (deserved) criticism for advocating a timetable that owed more to electoral populism than to concern for Britain’s responsibilities, it won headlines. When Mr Blair announced last week the first phase of a withdrawal of the army from Basra, Sir Menzies was able to claim, somewhat speciously, that even the government now accepted his argument that there was nothing left for British troops usefully to do in Iraq.

Crucially for Sir Menzies, his party’s performance in the opinion polls has been resilient enough to prevent any panic in the ranks. Given Mr Cameron’s grab for traditional Lib Dem voters on the environment, civil liberties and localism, the party’s poll rating, hovering around 20%, has been impressive. Senior Lib Dems claim to be delighted that Mr Cameron has worked so hard to put climate change on the agenda. They point to polling data that suggests voters still think the Lib Dems are easily the greenest of the mainstream parties. The more salient environmental issues become, they argue, the better the Lib Dems should do. And, vitally, the topic provides an alternative to Iraq, which may well be stale by the next election.

A good write-up, and a nice way to start the Spring conference week-end – from which I, regrettably, will be absent. Hope all attendees have a happy Harrogate…