If there is one thing that struck me more than anything at this week’s conference, it is that most people are now genuinely at ease with Ming Campbell’s leadership of the party. It is however also true that people are discussing who comes next.
What I sensed in the last week is that people are starting to understand where Ming Campbell is coming from, and appreciate that even if it is not what they would have chosen. This is tending to be along the following lines. Firstly, with David Cameron’s personal popularity waning, people are recognising the advantage of having a leader with experience and gravitas who is genuinely respected by the public. Secondly, despite the hiccups in the week before, he gave a good performance in everything that he did at conference and his leader’s speech was him in top form and giving the same excellent speeches that he gave in the leadership hustings. Thirdly, people are also seeing that he is starting to whip the party in to better shape in terms of how it operates, pushing forward the party’s talent and the campaigns the party has
run over the last year have been more dynamic and proactive. Not all of these things can be attributed to Ming alone, but they are a part of his way of operating as a leader.
But despite this, people are openly discussing the future. And why not? There should be no contradiction in being content with the current leader, but also looking for which person will come next. Ming himself has said that he will lead the party at the next election, and in to the next parliament, but he has not said that he will go on and on and on. The Independent debate at conference with Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne was inevitably seen by many as a debate being between the most likely candidates for the leadership next time. Apart from the fact that this assumes they will the only two contenders, which I think is unlikely, this does a disservice to two brilliant politicians who both gave important contributions to the subject of how the Lib Dems move closer to power. Indeed it should also be quite possible for someone to say that they might one day want to stand to be leader, without it being seen either as premature or underhand. It is sad that any MP who breaks from the line of saying “there isn’t a vacancy and I fully support Ming” is then pilloried, despite being one of the MPs that is closest to and most supportive of the current leader.
This all sounds like me painting a very rosy picture of a very loyal party and denying that there is any dissent simply because of my links to both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. But this is genuinely what I detect is happening, and that view was reinforced at this week’s conference. Most in the party have no appetite for a leadership contest before the general election, for both the positive reason that they are supportive of Ming and the negative one that it will make the party look silly. There are of course some people who are trying to undermine Ming’s leadership, but this a fairly small group which includes some MPs but is not, from what I can tell, directly linked to any of the leadership contenders. But why this doesn’t worry me is because I have now been in the party long enough to remember the unrelenting criticism from some who wanted Paddy Ashdown to go from the moment he started informal links with Tony Blair, and the more immediate undermining of Charles Kennedy which started well before he was finally ousted. I suspect those who have been party members for far longer than my eleven years will remember the same happening to earlier leaders too.
The people who are undermining Ming the most is the media, and that appears to be for one reason alone. Despite many journalists having respect for Ming as a person, they have decided on the accepted line and none will deviate from it. The only way the Liberal Democrats can counteract it, as journalists will find dissent even where there is none, is to keep up the campaigning in their own constituency. Opinion polls will always show a worse situation for Lib Dems than there is in reality, as the national swing assumes the electoral contest is simply between Labour and the Tories. In so many seats, that is simply not the case anymore, and the by-elections in Sedgefield and Ealing Southall should confirm that. We need to debate the future, but we need to temper this by not losing heart and keeping up the fight in our own areas. That’s how we’ll win, and as a result hand on an excellent legacy to whoever is the next leader.