Ming pulls it off

Friday, June 9th, 2006

It's a funny old world when the replacement of a media-conscious young leader with a silver-haired patrician is the cue for the first ever free-for-all interview between a party leader and a bunch of bloggers. Admittedly, we were Lib Dem bloggers and therefore house trained, but our 45-minute session today with Sir Menzies Campbell explicitly had no preconditions attached, no advance notice of questions, no no-go areas, and no requirement for copy approval afterwards. Is this the future? I'd like to think so.

To deal with the important stuff first, Ming has a genuine petrol-head's love of talking about car engines, will be supporting England in the World Cup, accepts that Pete will probably win Big Brother, and has strong opinions on Doctor Who (which I'll let Will Howells write about as they are his scoop). I didn't ask about his ties.

There was also a lot of other stuff about cutting income tax, penalising environmental polluters, reducing the number of MPs and breaking up the Home Office to make it operate better. Stuff like that.

And I have this to report: Ming has a spring in his step and he's looking and sounding sharp.

The thing that has worried me in the past – and I've alluded to it from time to time here – is that he seemed to be carrying his years badly. He sounded frail, looked pale, and at times seemed slack-jawed and confused.

Not any more.

Today's speech was billed as his vision for the future of the party. Unkinder souls called it a relaunch after an initial tenure as leader that had been somewhat underwhelming. It could have gone either way – the ghost of Iain Duncan Smith could easily have stalked Millbank – but in fact it went well. Better than well, actually. The relief on the face of Nick Clegg as he congratulated him afterwards was palpable, while Jo Swinson – who looks so young in the flesh that she should surely be presenting Why Don't You? rather than representing East Dunbartonshire in the House of Commons – looked on him as one would a favourite grandfather who's just outsprinted all the dads in a parents' race at a school sports day.

The Atrium at 4 Millbank is an excellent location to make an announcement – I have argued before that because Ming looks traditional he should choose modern settings – but its acoustics are dire. It was difficult to follow everything he said, but that was OK because he was actually saying it mostly for TV and they'd made the proper arrangements. The speech touched all the right buttons, speaking of the greater professionalism he's introducing to the party's workings and of the policy areas he considers the most important.

It ended with a rallying cry:

“I want a Britain where opportunity is the birth right of every child, a Britain where ambition is nurtured and aspiration encouraged.

“I was asked by one of my friends today, what I want for my country. I want what every Liberal Democrat wants: freedom, opportunity and compassion.

“I want a liberal country.

“I want a Britain to be proud of.”

That provoked a frenzy of nods from all the MPs standing on the platform with him – only Vince Cable and Saj Karim MEP refrained. Previously, while he was speaking, the cluster of senior colleagues around him had all practiced their best “listening seriously” faces, with Swinson and Ed Davey winning by miles. Each, as their own policy area came up in the speech, nodded on cue – Michael Moore with a slight look of puzzlement, as if he'd just been airlifted from the Big Brother house and wasn't quite sure why he was there, Chris Huhne emphatically, as if he was checking off the points to make sure he approved.

As Ming left, the acoustics of the Atrium started to work in his favour. The applause was loud and genuine – but the vast chamber magnified it and as he walked up the long sweep of steps to leave, pausing to shake hands and wave, the sound seemed to carry him upwards. One Lib Dem staffer later reported hearing a woman's breathless voice saying “I touched him! I shook his hand!” Most people stopped short of that level of adoration (no-one threw underwear) but spirits were clearly high. The event had succeeded.

Media reaction has so far also been broadly positive. It's hardly headline news on the day when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi died and Wayne Rooney's foot was reborn, but it's had an encouraging response and the proposed cut in income tax has been picked up as a story. The Beeb's Nick Robinson stood at the back looking thoughtful as Ming spoke, occasionally sipping from a tall glass and checking the pre-supplied text of Campbell's speech with the words he actually delivered. His blog has nothing to say about the event.

Unlike this one, and the Apollo Blog, and Will Howells. The future, you see, unfolding in front of you.

A second post, with the actual interview, will follow soon. The full text of the speech is here.

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