No mercy for Ming

The polls may be bad for David Cameron, but they are even worse for Menzies Campbell. The knives are

August has proved the cruellest month for David Cameron. After the grammar schools debacle, a calamitous decision to swap flood-soaked Witney for Rwanda and the dual by-election disaster, he has now notched up his worst poll ratings since becoming Tory leader.

To cap it all, the über-right-winger John Redwood then took to the stage - while the Tory leader was absent on a family holiday - to unveil a tranche of decidedly un-Cameroonian policies.

Cameron's dilemma is how to rein his rebellious party back to the centre ground while avoiding a full-on rebellion on his right flank. Not an easy task from a position of weakness.

According to a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times of 12 August, the Tories are now lagging ten points behind Labour. Worse still for Cameron, the Brown bounce has led to a slide in the number who think he is doing a good job, down from 54 per cent in April to just 29 per cent now. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Brown glories in a score of 65 per cent.

Yet a closer look at the figures shows that Cameron is not the only leader for whom the YouGov poll could spell disaster.

Sir Menzies Campbell is thought to be doing an even worse job than Cameron, with only 24 per cent giving him a vote of confidence, down 3 per cent in just four months. The Liberal Democrats are now languishing on 14 per cent - lower than at any time (bar one blip discussed later) since the 2005 general election.

Sir Ming's perilous position has largely failed to make the headlines, partly because the collapse in his party's standing has come in steady dribs and drabs - a percentage point here, a percentage point there. But the decline is no less significant for that.

It is often joked that Sir Ming is less popular sober than Charles Kennedy was drunk - and it's true that the heady 23 per cent scored by the Lib Dems at the last general election seems a long way off.

The one rogue result when the party's standing was lower than now came around the time Kennedy's drink problem was exposed, leading to his swift despatch. Even then, support stood at 13 per cent - just 1 per cent less than now.

The new 2 per cent slither to 14 per cent brought Lib Dem groans, not because they thought it was bad (they did), but because it was not quite dreadful enough. The party that sees itself as "nice" knows an assassination is urgently required, but no one quite has the gumption to wield the knife against mild-mannered Ming.

Instead, up and down the ranks, plotters are seeking a point at which the situation becomes so obviously bleak that they have no choice but to rid themselves of their distinctly unturbulent priest.

Many had hoped last month's Ealing Southall by-election would provide the magic bullet. With Cameron's Tories looking in fine fettle, several members of Ming's team secretly admitted they were praying for third place.

By-elections are the holy grail for Liberal Democrat MPs. Since the 1980s, many of them have entered parliament in between general elections with blitzkrieg assaults on former government strongholds.

So when it emerged that the Conservative candidate, Tony Lit, had donated money to Labour, it was not just a disaster for Cameron. One prominent Lib Dem MP, returning from campaigning in Ealing, arrived at an eve-of-poll summer party thrown by a leading party member exclaiming: "F*** - it looks like we might win this thing now." He was consoled by several frontbenchers, at least two prospective MPs, several backbenchers and various Lib Dem peers.

The result was worse than the plotters feared. Ming couldn't even confound his critics by winning the seat; instead, he clung to his usual mediocrity by hanging on in second place. For timid Liberal Democrats this was the worst possible outcome. Without hitting rock bottom, they didn't quite have the appetite to engage in the necessary bloodletting. But the drum roll of grim opinion poll results means that a return to Plan A - whereby the leader would be challenged next spring - is no longer an option, either.

Blind to the unhappiness around him, Sir Ming continues to insist he will fight the next general election and beyond. He recently told me that no one within the party had said to his face they were unhappy with his leadership, and until that happened he would assume that reports of plots were fictional.

Liberal Democrats are a notoriously cowardly lot, and I took him at his word that he had yet to be visited by the men in yellow coats. But he should have taken me at mine.

Just because he can't see them doesn't mean the knives aren't well and truly out for Ming Campbell. Now they just have to find that magic bullet.

Rosa Prince is political correspondent for the Daily Mirror

Martin Bright is away. Inside Track returns at the end of the month

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State