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16 October 2007

’There was no Lib Dem conspiracy’

The Lewes MP argues that Sir Menzies Campbell deserved better than the treatment he received from th

By Norman Baker

So the Lib Dems are to have a third leader this Parliament. The news came like a bolt from the blue on Monday, not just to the public at large, not just to the Lib Dem parliamentary party, but to Ming’s shadow cabinet colleagues, even those very close to him.

The immediate media reaction reflected the story that journalists wanted to run – here was an assassination, Ming being stabbed in the back, a big and unprincipled conspiracy. A great story – except that it wasn’t true.

The rather more mundane truth is that Ming came to his own conclusion that he needed to go as he judged that to be in the best interests of the party. Whatever Ming did, however good his speeches, however radical his ideas, there was only one subject the media were interested in – his leadership, and specifically his age. Age discrimination may have been outlawed by legislation, but it seems there is an exemption for journalists and cartoonists if they want to criticise and satirise politicians.

Those of us who backed Ming in his successful leadership contest knew how old he was. We took the view – and still do – that it didn’t matter how old he was, but how capable he was. What counted in his favour was his experience, not to mention his integrity, honesty and plain decency. He deserved a better fate than that which befell him this week.

So there was no Lib Dem conspiracy. But could we have done more to help? Perhaps. I am sure that if a Tory or Labour leader had been in difficulties, each party’s big clanking spin machine would have been operating in overdrive, denying black was black.

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Perhaps, if truth be told, we were on this occasion a touch naïve and a little lacking in guile and spin. That is one of the reasons the public warm to us, but it also explains why we were not quicker off the mark.

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As for the future, I am actually very optimistic. Ming, in his time as leader, made some long overdue changes to the internal workings of the party and created a shadow cabinet of depth and talent that easily outperforms the Tories.

Most crucially, the Lib Dems have a firm intellectual base, unlike the other two parties whose houses are built on shifting sands, whose compass rotates as if it were at the North Pole, and who steal policies from here, there and anywhere, in a way that betrays an intellectual incoherence.

Liberalism is a light that cannot be extinguished. I know that our future is bright, indeed that the future is orange.