Like most Lib Dem MPs I was shocked by the speed of Ming Campbell’s departure. I had thought he would probably ‘tough it out’. Given the volatility of the polls in recent weeks – we were at 20% in September and 11% in October – it could all have turned round pretty quickly and we would have united behind Ming’s leadership.
But it is to Ming’s great credit that he took the view that it was in the best interests of the party for him to stand aside. I suspect that, as a leader, it is very easy to get into a ‘bunker’ mentality where you filter out any criticism. It is impressive that Ming has avoided this risk and has put his own ambition to one side in the interests of the party.
With an election possibly 18 months or more away, we can now have a leadership contest which will give us a new generation of leadership and from which I believe we will emerge as a stronger and more united party.
In terms of the runners and riders, clearly Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne have been talked about for a long period and they are the frontrunners. But one of Ming Campbell’s strategies has been to bring on a breadth of talent on the Lib Dem frontbench which means that there are now several colleagues who would also be highly credible as potential leaders either on this occasion or next time round.
As regards the substance of the debate, I am keen that our next leader speaks out strongly on domestic policy issues as much as our previous leaders have excelled on foreign policy.
All leaders play to their strengths and Ming Campbell, Paddy Ashdown and to some extent Charles Kennedy were happiest debating international issues.
But my concern is that, given the limited media time and space allocated to the Lib Dems, if this is the main focus of the leaders’ comments then the British public do not see us as relevant to the bread-and-butter issues that concern them such as schools, hospitals, pensions and crime.
I feel strongly about this which is why, if I were to throw my hat into the ring, these are some of the issues I would want to stress.
But I hope that whoever wins the current contest will be able to redress that balance.