Ming Campbell’s Achilles heel

Sunday, February 5th, 2006

I was phone canvassed by the Campbell campaign yesterday and the combination of that and some conversations I’ve had with members in my local party suggest exactly why my favoured choice for leader isn’t waltzing home unchallenged – why, in fact, he is quite likely to lose to Chris Huhne.

It’s not his age, or his health, or his policies, or even his sodding Jaguar. It’s his supporters.

The canvass conversation went, as best as I can remember, something like this:

Perky young female voice: Hi, I’m Sarah from Ming Campbell’s campaign, and I’m calling to see if you’ll be supporting him.

Me: I suppose I better had, since I was on his blog as a supporter.

Perky young female voice (confused): You’re on the supporters’ list?

Me: No, on the blog.

Perky young female voice: Oh. Would you like us to add you to the supporters’ list?

Me: No, I thought about it, but then I remembered all those crocodiles behind him with knives in their hands covered with Charles Kennedy’s blood and nearly decided not to vote for him after all.

Perky young female voice (disapprovingly, as if to a madman): Right, okay.

Pause

Perky young female voice: (cheerful again) Do you mind me asking who your second preference is going to?

Me: Simon, probably.

Perky young female voice: Thank you very much! Byeee!

And off she went. My first thought afterwards was to wonder why she wanted to know about my second preference – it will only come into play if Ming comes last so it’s not as if they can do anything with the information. Far more use to find out the second preference of people who say they’re not voting for him.

What strikes me now was how unable she was to deal with my hostility towards Ming’s supporters. Of course, it may have been the way I expressed it, or uncertainty what to do now we were off the script. But it was symptomatic of a lack of understanding in Campbell Towers of how much latent hostility is still slopping around about the Kennedy assassination.

I dropped out of active politics some time in 2003, completely burned out after spending several years demonstrating to my own satisfaction that I didn’t have what it takes to be the next Lynne Featherstone or Norman Lamb – ie, someone who takes a hopeless third place and turns it into a Lib Dem gain by hard work and sheer force of personality.

I have recently got involved again to help one of our councillors in his re-election campaign, but my disappearance meant there were quite a few friends who I hadn’t spoken to for quite literally years and who I’m now catching up with. Inevitably, we’ve talked about the leadership.

It seems to me that most people look on voting for Simon Hughes in the same way they would look at eating a whole box of chocolate eclairs – they’d really, really like to do it (and some will) but they know it’s bad for them so most will regretfully decide against it. And that has nothing to do with the furore about his sexuality – that was the way it was going anyway. Note: My Hughes-supporting Beloved Other Half takes very extreme exception to this paragraph and considers it to be utterly without foundation for a very long list of reasons. We are not the Darbyshires in this household, I’ll tell you that…

It’s also clear that the reason lots of members are taking a serious look at what Chris Huhne has to offer is because of lingering anger about the fall of Charles Kennedy. Partly that anger is directed at Ming himself, but I think a lot of people who are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt are seriously turned off by a number of his supporters.

Speaking personally, I’d be very happy if Campbell and Huhne could swap supporters – most of the people I respect, including the person I would have preferred to see as the next leader, are supporting him.

But although Ming obviously thinks his MP supporters are his great strength, they are actually his biggest weakness. There’s a real dislike of Sarah Teather among almost everybody I’ve spoken to – she really hasn’t won herself any friends at all. But it spreads further than just her. As others among Lib Dem bloggers have said, Ming’s strategy of referring to himself as a “bridge to the future” is a bad one. It was the man himself who built, over years, a reputation as one of Parliament’s most respected MPs – not the people who might or might not support him.

But I’m going to put it more bluntly than that. If Ming doesn’t immediately put people like Nick Clegg in a box, nail down the lid, and start playing the “politics is too important to be left to schoolboys” card against David Cameron, he will lose the leadership to Chris Huhne.

And it will be his own fault.

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