My crystal balls

Monday, January 30th, 2006

I believe that two things are going to happen in British politics over the next few years.

Firstly, when Blair goes there will be a backlash against young, slick media-friendly politicians. Gravitas and dourness will be in, charm and twinkling smiles will be out. It's been brewing for years and it'll take just one spark for the public mood to switch. It's going to be a very bad time to be David Cameron, David Milliband, DavidNick Clegg or one of seemingly hundreds of identikit political clones.

Secondly, the change in Labour's leadership will merely delay the increasing unpopularity of the government instead of reversing it. In other words, I believe it'll be like the long, slow death of the Tory government all over again – remember how people thought John Major was basically an okay sort of bloke but couldn't wait to see the back of his administration?

For these assumptions to come true, a whole other set of assumptions have to fail to come true – most obviously, if either Brown or Cameron (or both) turn out to be electoral Viagra for their parties, then things will be very different. But I don't think they're going to be.

So where will that leave the Liberal Democrats?

Still at the crease, about to hit the ball over the pavilion, out of the ground and through the bloke next door's greenhouse into his tomato plants.

None of the three candidates for leader are exactly what you might call a fluffy media bunny. You may have seen the Question Time audience react to the idea that Ming Campbell might be too old – I've written about it before, it was the moment when I thought “he's our next leader”. If he's in charge when the backlash against smarm combines with a “get the bastards out” move against Labour, we'll be laughing. Which is not to say that Simon and Chris would be a liability under those circumstances – I think they would also be well placed to seize the moment. But not as well.

Because I think there will be a moment to be seized. The biggest thing we have to worry about right now is a blue tide washing us away, and it's not happening. Monday's Independent carries an analysis of recent polls by John Curtice of Strathclyde University. It's grim reading in one sense – but not in others.

Professor Curtice said the conventional wisdom at Westminster that Mr Cameron was hurting the Liberal Democrats, and that their problems were good news for the Tories “does not fit the facts”.

This is basically the argument I made recently – the Tories are not doing us much damage at all. We're doing plenty ourselves, but the support we're losing is drifting to Labour, not to Cameron. And if things go as I think they will, we can get it back.

Of course, this all depends on one thing: that we can haul ourselves back on track very quickly indeed – starting, ideally, from yesterday. People have been laughing at us for a few weeks now – if they don't stop soon, they may not stop at all, in which case all my theorising goes for nothing and we'll be back to the days when the Parliamentary party could meet in the back of a taxi.

Those of you with long enough memories will recall a previous cure for being laughed at that worked rather well.

I seem to remember a time when our “Social and Liberal Democrats” name was derided as “Salads” and the new bird of freedom logo was being mocked as a dead parrot. Overnight, all that stopped. And if my memory serves me right what stopped it was the Eastbourne by-election victory. After that, Lib Dems (oh, alright, SaLaDs) across the country could be heard chanting “you're not singing, you're not singing, you're not singing any more”.

So we'd better fucking win in Dunfermline, that's all I can say.

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