Lib Dem MP: "We have to think about where we want to be in 18 months' time"

by Stephen Tall on October 8, 2007

From today’s Guardian:

there are now also questions over the fate of the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ming Campbell, 66, who has failed to push up his party’s fortunes in the opinion polls in recent months. He was chosen in 2006 to provide a safe pair of hands after Charles Kennedy had to resign – but he also has younger MPs who are keen to take the job. …

One Lib Dem MP said last night: ‘This election decision is going to have big ramifications for us all. We will have to take a good hard look at our own party, now the prospect of an autumn poll has receded, to think about where we want to be in 18 months’ time.’

What does this enigmatic remark mean? Usually I take anonymous comments with a decent pinch of salt – both because they’re cowardly and because I don’t trust news reporters – but this measured comment strikes me as genuine.

It’s inevitable there will be some media speculation about Ming Campbell’s leadership in the media in the days’ ahead. This is for two reasons: (i) the media has been robbed of the election it was keenly anticipating, and will be looking for a new big political story to fill the void; and (ii) if Gordon really is going to play the game long, and delay the election until 2009, then Ming will lack the national stage on which to display his leadership credentials.

One question for the Lib Dems – from members, activists and bloggers through to the Parliamentary party – is how we choose to behave during this period of media scrutiny.

My belief is that the party would be deluded to the point of mental incapacity if it were to attempt to force unwillingly from office a second leader in a row. There will be those who disagree – according to the polls, they are a minority, but they exist – and think Ming is a drag on the national party’s popularity.

It is clear the media could not care less about reporting our policies, even more so with a general election judged to be about 18 months away. The only exposure we can expect in the next few months will be when reporters think they can spin out the ‘Ming in trouble’ line they are so keen to run with. And I am aware that even by writing this posting, broadly supportive of Ming, I am giving the speculation some legs.

We can complain about the unfairness of the media’s bias all we like: but this is the reality.

Another question therefore becomes: what is the party going to do about it? Hope the leadership speculation goes away, or face it head on? Has the time come when Ming should think about ‘doing a John Major’, re-standing for his own job as leader of the Lib Dems?

I don’t know if this would resolve anything (after all, it didn’t help John Major or the Tories very much). But do we – does Ming – want to spend another 18 months having to answer tedious questions from bland journalists about his leadership to the exclusion of having the chance to get Lib Dem policies across to the public?