“We do not concern ourselves with the internal machinations of an obscure third party.” It is easy to see why, when asked, most Conservatives including this shadow cabinet member were reluctant to offer a running commentary on obscure Liberal Democrat in-house wrangling. Wise, when your own party has spent more than a decade questioning the suitability of its latest charge, to hold back when another party attempts the same.
The general consensus from the Conservatives was: don’t push too hard, don’t shoot the fox too soon. They were insistent that the longer Menzies Campbell was around, the better. Having had such intensive experience of a wrong leader at the top, they were more than happy to sit back and watch as politics became a two-man game and the Liberal Democrats conducted their own solitary domestic.
You can only have one secure political figure at any one time, and with Labour bitching about Brown and Ming swiftly gone, the Conservative Party considers David Cameron to be a more than solid leader. A Tory press officer commented: “There doesn’t seem to be great enthusiasm for a new leader of the Liberal Democrats; Ming’s picture even failed to make the front page of the Times.”
A senior Cameron aide is adamant that the way the Tories treat the Lib Dems will be business as usual, no matter who the leader is. “We have a researcher who carries out a huge amount of background research on the Liberals, but the same thorough amount of scrutiny is implemented with every player on the political scene. We are on to them. We find out what they’ve said, what they’ve done. We know what they did last summer.”
This is certainly not complacency, but an approach that, rightly or wrongly, will fire bullets at the party not the leader. “We will prove there is no need for a third party. The problem with the Lib Dems is not their leader. It’s them, their policies.”
At present, the chattering among Tories about the Liberal Democrat leadership appears to rule out any candidate other than Nick Clegg, the home affairs spokesman. They are aware that, if Clegg does win, people will make comparisons between Clegg and Cameron. A Tory backbench chum of Clegg’s says: “Nick is socially liberal, and yes, he’s concerned about the environment. But he is less enthusiastic about Britain and more enthusiastic about Europe. That’s exactly where we’ll get him.”
Another Tory cross-party friend claims: “I think we may have saturated the market when it comes to personable, young, ambitious family men who like recycling and possess a full head of hair. Cameron did that two years ago.
“[Clegg] will have a problem establishing himself, as he’ll come across as Cameron-lite.”
In refreshing Tory tradition, there is always one MP who does not hold back: “Nick Clegg is a screaming Euro-fanatic man-child; he’s half Dutch; he should be called Nick Clog.”
One Tory more than familiar with Clog is the Conservative pin-up and shadow minister for culture, Ed Vaizey. He spent six gruelling days with the Liberal Democrat lovely, trekking to the Arctic with huskies (Tory canine of choice). The experience is clearly fresh in his mind.
“Nick’s a lovely guy but he’s terribly vain. For the entire trip he harped on about how he was number one in a Sky poll of ‘Most Fanciable MPs’ and that I was only number nine. We shared an igloo and the intimate, bonding evening chat was based on how good-looking he is. I was referred to only by my fanciability ranking of number nine,” Vaizey says. “Oh, did I say he’s a roaring Sloane and he talks in his sleep?”
On a lighter note, Vaizey expressed his thoughts to a fellow shadow minister about just how difficult the role of leader is: “It is a very tough job leading a political party. I supported Dave, but we weren’t to know how he would perform in that role. We had every faith, but nothing is guaranteed.
“They [the Liberal Democrats] are in a similar position. The possible candidates are known to the party, but actually leading it – in the position they are in at present – is an uphill job.”
The Conservatives’ key tactic for the next election is to throw manpower and their weight financially behind winning marginal seats, many of which are Liberal Democrat. During the 2005 election, many Tory candidates were shocked by the Lib Dems, who played a particularly nasty, grubby and personal game. It has not been forgotten. A strategist says: “Pretty boy Clegg, Chris Huhne, whoever, we’re going to nail them.”