Thursday, February 02, 2006

The campaign gets serious

There have been some interesting stories in today's press.

The ePolitix site quotes a Simon Hughes interview with the Evening Standard where Hughes complains that Sir Menzies Campbell was planning his leadership campaign before Charles Kennedy resigned. The story ends:

He said Sir Menzies had been planning his campaign at the same time as publicly pledging loyalty to Kennedy.

"As soon as Charles went, Ming declared within minutes and clearly there was a campaign ready to take off," Hughes told the London Evening Standard.

"I had not anticipated Charles going, never wanted that to happen and had not made any preparations to stand. I had not been planning to stand against Charles."

Hughes also contrasted his own energetic campaigning style with that of the 64-year-old acting leader.

Then there is the intriguing story in this morning's Times, written by Andrew Pierce. It begins:

Chris Huhne, the dark horse for the Liberal Democrat leadership, faces accusations of betraying his colleagues by reneging on a deal not to run in the contest.

The Times has learnt that Mr Huhne, who entered Parliament at the last election, promised in a private meeting with Sir Menzies Campbell that he would not enter the race.

Mr Huhne, a former MEP who is barely known outside Westminster, promised to support Sir Menzies and sealed the deal with a handshake after a 50-minute meeting shortly after the resignation of Charles Kennedy. But barely one hour later Mr Huhne, a Treasury spokesman, returned to Sir Menzies's office in the Commons to declare that he had changed his mind.

His decision not only dismayed Sir Menzies, 64, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, but also caused uproar among the group of young modernising Lib Dem MPs who are seen as future leaders.

We can draw two conclusions from this. First, the Campbell campaign is rattled by the progress Chris Huhne is making; second, that Ming is being poorly advised.

The picture that is emerging is of a group of young MPs who see Ming Campbell as a short-term leader who will fight only one election, leaving them free to thrash the leadership amongst themselves in three or four years time. It is reminiscent of a dealers' ring at an auction.

Charles Kennedy had to go, not so much because of his drinking, but because the party was drifting under his leadership. Would a Ming Campbell leadership on these terms be much of an improvement?

The Times also carries a more sympathetic interview with Huhne, written up by Alice Miles. On this point it says:

They thought there was a deal; he didn't. On the other hand, Sir Menzies's backers only seem to have remembered the supposed agreement now that support for Mr Huhne is growing.

Mr Huhne questioned the value of a leader simply keeping the seat warm for someone younger and fresher to emerge. "The questions are going to be, given the likelihood of what may happen after the next election, how long would Ming be leader after the election? Would he be prepared to fight another election? I think that's very important for the authority of the leader because if a leader is regarded as somebody who is there for a relatively short period of time, there is a danger that they become essentially the chairman of an ongoing leadership campaign amongst all of the young cardinals who are supporting an old pope."

My feeling is still that it would have been better for Nick Clegg (and perhaps one or two of Ming's other backers) to have stood for the leadership this time.

One reason I am supporting Chris Huhne is precisely that he has shown leadership qualities. He has grasped what the party needs and that there is an opportunity open to him and seized the day.

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