What is wrong with the Liberal Democrats? The Labour Party is in a state of possibly terminal free fall, but why isn’t the centre party, with its impeccable anti-war credentials, its pioneering stance on the environment and a consistent line on civil liberties, mopping up? The Cameron factor is no longer enough to explain the singular failure of the Lib Dems to capitalise on their best election performance in 80 years. Nor is it sufficient to say that they are still struggling to come to terms with dumping their most successful leader in recent times. No one seriously believed Charles Kennedy could go on, not even Charles Kennedy.
In early March it will be a year since Sir Menzies Campbell won control of his party; plenty of time to get over the understandable, although fairly extreme, nerves of the early days in post. But somehow his leadership has never quite gathered momentum.
According to the latest YouGov polling, Ming now has a personal rating of -24. This is as nothing compared to Tony Blair’s -43 or Gordon Brown’s -37. Yet it is a long way short of David Cameron’s -10 (no senior politician has a positive score but, bizarrely, William Hague comes closest).
Ming has never had anything like the popularity his predecessor enjoyed with the British people, even when the publicity surrounding Charlie’s drinking was at its height. One member of the high command told me that they draw comfort from Politicalbetting.com (fast becoming a mainstay of the political classes), where Ming is at -11, compared to Cameron’s -9. This is hardly the stuff of inspirational leadership.
Despite his gravitas, Campbell has never stamped his authority on the party. The two distinctive policies the Lib Dems have developed in the past year – green taxes and the demand for a deadline to pull out of Iraq – were both opposed by Campbell during his leadership campaign and can both be claimed by his surprise opponent, Chris Huhne.
There is a growing expectation that the party will treat Campbell as brutally as it did his predecessor if his performance doesn’t show a marked improvement when Blair stands down. Perversely, the media’s attention being so focused on the Prime Minister’s problems with the cash-for-honours scandal makes it difficult for the third party to penetrate the public consciousness. But the Lib Dems’ latest wheeze, an online manifesto consultation, was an example of that most unappealing hybrid: the dull gimmick.
It is easy to sneer. According to those who still believe in Campbell, hope can be drawn even from the misery of the present situation. The latest “poll of polls” in the Independent shows the party at 20 per cent, just two points down on the 2005 election.
“Liberal leaders always find it difficult to get going,” says one grandee. “Paddy Ashdown had a seriously negative personal rating 18 months into his leadership. Charles slipped for the first six to 12 months.” Conventional Lib Dem wisdom has it that the parliamentary system and media obsession with the politics of two-party confrontation militate against a third party getting its fair share of publicity between elections. This all changes during the four-week election campaign, when the Lib Dems come into their own, or so the optimists believe. There is a certain truth in this. The past two elections have both seen third-party surges.
If the pattern continues, the Lib Dems would become serious players in a hung parliament. Strictly speaking, they could hold the balance of power with just a handful of MPs, but there is no doubt that their demands for electoral reform would be strengthened if they managed to increase their number of MPs to near the 80 mark.
There is a certain irritation in Campbell’s inner circle at the suggestion that their man will be too old by the time of the next election: he will be 68 in 2009. His political opponents wouldn’t be able to attack someone for being gay, or a woman, they argue, but somehow it’s fine to attack Ming because he’s over 65.
There are already stirrings within the party. It has not gone unnoticed that most members of the Lib Dem front-bench team are at least 20 years younger than the leader himself. The real question now is which of them will turn out to be the assassin. Huhne, who moved quickly to enter the race last year after just eight months in parliament, is the obvious choice. Activists have noticed that he is touring local constituency parties on a charm offensive.
Unlike his obvious rivals, the home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg and the work and pensions spokesman David Laws, who supported the Campbell campaign last year, Huhne has shown that he has a ruthless streak. Is he best placed to provide the obvious answer to the question with which I began this column? What is wrong with the Lib Dems? They failed to pick a winner.