From venerable leader to vulnerable

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The tenor of the Liberal Democrats’ tributes to Sir Menzies Campbell on Monday night illustrated why their 66-year-old leader had to go.

Sir Menzies’ 18-month stint in charge of the Lib Dems had given the opposition party “stability and purpose”, Simon Hughes, the party president, said. “Every Liberal Democrat owes Ming a huge debt of gratitude.”

The fact that activists and MPs expressed this “huge debt” by pressing their leader to quit reflects harsh political realities, rather than personal animosities.

As Mr Hughes’s plaudits to Sir Menzies show, many Lib Dems liked their erstwhile leader and valued the role he played. But giving a party “stability and purpose” cuts no political ice if the stability appears to be that of managed electoral decline.

Falling opinion poll ratings – down from 22 per cent in the last general election to 11-15 per cent in recent surveys – would leave most of the 63 Lib Dem MPs out of work, if replicated at the ballot box.

Sir Menzies’ attempts to reassure his party in the face of this unforgiving arithmetic were undermined by one inescapable attribute – his age. Gordon Brown’s decision to delay a general election meant the Lib Dems faced going to the country under a leader approaching 70.

Sir Menzies tried to neuter the political damage caused by his venerability, saying his age did not damage his ability to do his job.

As recently as last weekend he dismissed “idle chatter” about potential coups by insisting he had “the energy, ideas and determination to lead this party into the next general election and beyond”.

His argument that his age was a positive factor, equating to greater experience, may have helped him get elected. Lib Dems, reeling from the traumatic putsch that forced Charles Kennedy to resign after admitting a drink problem, turned with relief to an elder statesman.

In two decades as MP for North East Fife, Sir Menzies built an enviable reputation in parliament, particularly on foreign affairs where he played a core role in the Lib Dems’ opposition to the Iraq war.

But this reputation proved of little value once the leadership role thrust Sir Menzies into a much harsher media and political spotlight.

His fumbling performances in the bearpit of prime minister’s questions raised immediate questions about whether the party had been wise to swap Mr Kennedy for Sir Menzies.

These doubts were succinctly expressed in one activist’s rhetorical question: “Is a drunken leader better than a useless leader?”

Such concerns about political effectiveness threw Sir Menzies’ age into sharp relief.

Even his efforts to highlight his impressive athletics achievements, including representing Britain in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, were taken as evidence he belonged to a bygone era.

Brutal lampooning of him by newspaper cartoonists meant he was habitually portrayed propping up a Zimmer frame.

Sir Menzies fought hard to counteract such images, promising at the party conference in Brighton last month to challenge the Labour-Tory consensus and “rattle the cage” of British politics.

But it was his party’s own supporters who appeared most rattled. As this month’s opinion poll resurgence of the Tories threatened to squeeze the third party out of contention, one survey found only one in four Lib Dem supporters thought their leader would make the best prime minister.

With political friends like that, Sir Menzies evidently concluded he had little option but to quit.

Resignation letter

When I was elected leader of the party in March 2006 I had three objectives. First, to restore stability and purpose in the party following my predecessor’s resignation and the leadership campaign itself, second to make the internal operations of the party more professional, and third to prepare the party for a general election.

With the help of others, I believe that I have fulfilled these objectives, although I am convinced that the internal structures of the party need radical revision if we are to compete effectively against Labour and the Conservatives.

But it has become clear that following the prime minister’s decision not to hold an election, questions about leadership are getting in the way of further progress by the party.

Accordingly, I now submit my resignation as leader with immediate effect.

I do not intend to hold a press conference or to make any further comment.

Yours sincerely,
Menzies Campbell
Leader, Liberal Democrats

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