Chris Huhne: Just say 'no'

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

Whole books have been written on the ideal qualities of a leader: the ability to inspire – coolness under fire – broad strategy combined with tactical nous – high principles tempered by low cunning – luck, as well as judgement. Fewer have been written about the failings that leaders must avoid – even though one failing can trump a whole hatful of qualities.

Anyone drawing up a shopping list of qualities for an ideal leader of the Liberal Democrats could amuse themselves for hours picking the distinguishing characteristics that he or she should have and then mapping them to the three candidates currently standing.

Recent history however shows that, whatever qualities are necessary, hardly any failings a Lib Dem leader might have really matter a damn. In the past 30 or so years we have had a leader embroiled in a lurid court case, another regularly lampooned as a puppet in a rival's pocket, a third who was revealed to be a philanderer and, most recently, another who was a drunk. Despite that, the party has for the most part advanced. Admittedly, the march forwards has at times been more of a stagger or a weave, but the general progress has been positive.

But there is one failing a leader of the third party cannot have – they cannot be dull.

There is no rule that says anyone has to take notice of a single thing the Liberal Democrats say, do or think – even with 62 63 MPs. It's down to the leader to make a connection with the public imagination and force the media to take notice. In their different ways Kennedy, Ashdown, Steel, Thorpe and – before them – Grimond all did it.

Sir Menzies Campbell is not dull. He may carry his age a trifle too heavy on his shoulders and he may forever have to look behind him for fear of what ill health may be creeping up on him, but he has already demonstrated that he can inspire the respect and interest necessary to forge that connection. The rest is detail. A Campbell party would be listened to, because Campbell is listened to.

Simon Hughes is not dull, either. Of erratic judgement possibly, disorganised frequently, but again this is detail. Simon has proved time and again that he can reach out to the public and communicate in a manner that resonates with them. A Hughes party would connect, because Hughes connects.

Chris Huhne, alas, is dull. Even his supporters admit that this is his Achilles heel, although they will not be so blunt in the way that they phrase it and they point out, rightly, that a lot can be learned to overcome this. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied. His literature proudly quotes a commentator who describes him as “Britain's most formidable one-man think-tank”. No small achievement, and the party is infinitely the stronger for having him in its ranks, but not a contradiction of his basic weakness – some might say it reinforces it, in fact. A Huhne party would be respected yes, admired yes, because Huhne is respected and admired. But that is where it would stop. A grey man in a grey suit will never – but never – prove the salvation of the third party.

Which is why I say this: if Chris Huhne is elected as leader of the Liberal Democrats we might as well pack up and go home now, because the only fate that awaits is to be the most formidable little think-tank on the opposition benches.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.