Lib Dems: about to collapse, or on the up?

by Stephen Tall on September 1, 2007

Two very alternative takes on the party’s fortunes have appeared in the press in the last few days.

For those who like to drink from the glass half-empty, you can sup happily from today’s leader in the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph:

Liberal Democrat support is quite simply collapsing. The party currently attracts only 14 per cent of voters, compared with 22 per cent in the 2005 general election. If there were a general election tomorrow, the Lib Dems would lose some of their most cherished West Country seats – to the Tories. Admittedly, Gordon Brown would be returned to office with an increased majority, but, for the first time in decades, Britain’s third party would have been reduced to insignificance.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs. When Mr Cameron rebranded the Conservatives as a green party, he pushed the Lib Dems off a patch of the ground that they had occupied, rather smugly, for years. But there is a more significant factor, which can be summed up in two words: Menzies Campbell.

But those who prefer their politics sunny-side-up can opt instead for Bill Jacobs’ upbeat assessment in The Scotsman:

Unexpectedly, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell has had the most relaxed holiday of the three party chiefs. While Gordon Brown has been desperate to show that as Prime Minister he is just as much in control as he was as Chancellor, and David Cameron has been trying to subdue his unruly Conservative Party, Ming finds himself as ruler of all he surveys. …

As the wheels came off Mr Cameron’s new Tory bandwagon over the early summer and Mr Brown took over from Mr Blair, the Lib Dem leader’s performances at Westminster strengthened and his age ceased to be an issue in the press. The idea of a steady hand on the tiller of the Liberal Democrats as well as in the country took hold and the murmuring in the party subsided. …

Now the party is on the up in the opinion polls and its leader looks safe, at least until the next General Election expected within 18 months. Ming is a bit of a fly fisherman as well as an athlete who ran in the 100 metres relay in the 1964 Olympics, so he knows that a flying start is not everything.

If you are seeking to reel in trout and salmon – as he has done many times in the Borders with friend and predecessor David Steel – you don’t expect them to bite first time. Similarly, Ming doesn’t expect the voters to leap up and swallow his party line immediately. But, as one of his closest aides told me: “If you look at Ming’s career as an athlete, lawyer and politician – not to mention fisherman – there is a lot of patience and hard work there.”

And it is beginning to look, as Mr Brown and Mr Cameron try to tear each other apart, that those quintessential qualities are paying off.

So, there you have it… you pays your money, you takes your choice.

And let’s not forget the Torygraph has been here before – the paper splashed its front-page with the headline, ‘Scandal-hit Lib Dems in freefall’ (23rd Jan, 2006). Only problem was that a couple of weeks later the Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie won a sensational by-election victory in Dunfermline.