The day Ming told Charles his office was a "f****** shambles" (and other stories)

by Stephen Tall on March 2, 2008

The serialisation of Ming Campbell’s memoirs is continuing in the Mail. The latest instalment considers his own 18-month tenure as Lib Dem leader – not, perhaps, the happiest time of his life.

Ming’s prose is as starched as his collars and cuffs. Pre-publication rumours suggested he had been instructed to ‘sex up’ his autobiography – and I do wonder if this nugget made it into the first draft, or was inserted later:

Charles had come under fire soon after his election because of a lack of clear leadership. Indeed, at a clear-the-air meeting in 1999, I had told him that his office was a “f****** shambles” – I remember it because it was most uncharacteristic of me to swear at such a gathering.

The rest of the account is more concerned with the background noise to his own resignation; in particular, Simon Hughes’ frequently off-piste commentary on Ming’s leadership is the subject of some scarcely-veiled criticism. But Simon is the only MP named (at least in this extract) – the ‘grey suits’ who appear to have made the greatest impact on Ming’s decision to stand down are Lib Dem peers, specifically Bob Maclennan, Shirley Williams and Navnit Dholakia.

On July 24, at a private dinner with some Lib Dem peers, I gave my view of the challenges for the party. … Maclennan said: “There are so many other ways you could contribute.” Shirley said something like: “What a great man you are, but …” Dholakia added: “Why is it everywhere I go, people ask about the leadership?” They made it plain they thought I should resign. I had been ambushed. The three had clearly prepared their attack. The other peers looked as surprised as I felt. I fended off the criticisms, but the conversation became so difficult we had to ask the waiters to leave.

The final nails in Ming’s coffin were hammered in by two former leaders, Lords Steel and Ashdown, on October 15th:

I was due to attend a Lib Dem executive meeting in London on Monday, October 15. I caught an early flight to Heathrow that morning and when I reached my office, Archy was waiting for me, looking uncomfortable. “David [Steel] and Paddy want to come and see you this week,” he said. “To what purpose?” “I think they’re going to ask you whether you think you can put up with this for 18 months, because if the economy goes upside down and Brown’s forced to wait until 2010, you’ll be 69.” Suddenly there was a queue of senior party figures at my door. If they just wanted to encourage me, they could pick up a phone. What was noticeable was the absence of anyone telling me to sit it out.

Ming read the writing on the wall, and made his decision quickly. The following exchange between Sir Ming and Lady Elspeth is the very definition of pathos:

I rang Elspeth. “I think I’m going to resign,” I told her.
“Are you sure?” she said, sounding very concerned.
“I’ve had enough of this,” I said.
“Do you mean you’ll go at Christmas?”
“No, I mean today. I’m going to come straight home.”
There was a pause before Elspeth replied: “There’s nothing in the fridge.”