Tough tasks ahead for 'distant' Lib Dems
- 16 Oct 07, 07:19 PM
John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, assesses the problems facing the Liberal Democrats in the wake of Sir Menzies Campbell's resignation.
Sir Menzies has complained about always being asked about his age. Doubtless this was both irritating and debilitating. But in truth his age in years was not his problem. It was rather that in his manner he seemed from a different age - and as a result distant from the public he was seeking to represent. And in the end it was apparent inability to reach out to the wider public that was his undoing.
When last month MORI asked, as it does every month, how satisfied people were with how Sir Menzies was doing the job of Liberal Democrat leader, 11% more people said they were dissatisfied than satisfied. But that was not the most telling statistic. Rather it was that despite having been in the job for 18 months, as many as 41% could not say whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied.
Until a couple of weeks ago, however, this problem was not terminal for Sir Menzies. While down on the 19% average poll rating he had inherited as leader, his party was still running at 17% at the time of his party's conference last month. Meanwhile the fizz had apparently gone out David Cameron's leadership of the Conservatives.
But the Tory revival following the party's successful conference produced a precipitate fall in Liberal Democrat support to just 12%. At the same time David Cameron's personal popularity was restored. It was now vital that the LIberal Democrats be lead by a popular personality who could make an impact. It is perhaps an indication of Sir Menzies' acute political judgement that he recognised that requirement - and that he was not the person best able to meet it.
Now the Liberal Democrats face two tough tasks. First, can they find a leader who can provide their party with a strategic direction and sell it to the public? The two main contenders, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, were both only first elected in 2005. Chris Huhne's leadership bid last time around apart, neither has had little chance to demonstrate that they have this ability.
Second, can the party put losing two leaders in two years behind it? Might the public not conclude that if the Liberal Democrats cannot agree who should be their leader they cannot possibly be trusted to run the country? Whoever wins the leadership will have to address that question convincingly if their victory is not to become a poisoned chalice.