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16 October 2007

Why I hope Clegg runs

Mark Oaten says it's a shame Ming Campbell has quit but at least there is now a chance for Nick Cleg

By Mark Oaten

The last few days will have brought back a few bad memories for the Liberal Democrats. The last leadership race almost two years ago was, bluntly, a disaster with a drawn out bid to try and save Kennedy and then my own failings creating a nightmare leadership contest.

This time things feel very different. Despite some media speculation I was not aware that there was a long running campaign to oust Ming. It is typical of the man that he has not allowed that to happen. He hates criticism and is very proud. And to be honest, he has a good deal of which to be proud. He inherited a mess and it is to his great credit that the party went on to win a parliamentary by-election and has become more organised and ready for a general election, whenever it may come.

It’s been repeated again and again that his age and profile have combined and been a main factor in the party’s slump in the polls. But frankly if you had a combination of Churchill and John F. Kennedy in the leadership, I think the party would have struggled to make progress against a backdrop of the ever-present Brown-Cameron show, and in the wake of the conference season, the Lib Dems appeared to slip quietly into the night. All media focus rested firmly on election speculation and examining miniscule variations in poll data.

All this considered, it has undoubtedly been a tough time for the party. Not only have we seen our poll ratings drop to an oft quoted 11%, but failing to make it up the news agenda has also served to place the party in the doldrums in the eyes of the electorate. Inevitably this creates a certain amount of momentum for change, and Ming recognised this. He made a decision to remain in control and not allow events to get away from him.

Plunged into a leadership contest for the second time in two years does invite some serious questions, but also opportunities. The most obvious question that comes to my mind is that if Ming was indeed a victim of circumstance, then why would any other leader be able to change the party’s fortunes?

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Ming’s alleged lack of charisma and advanced years should not mean that the criterion for a new leader should solely be a marketable face. Instead, the party should take this contest as an opportunity to initiate a constructive narrative on what liberalism really means today and for the coming century.

At the moment, the liberal project has too many woolly and weak associations. The party needs to take a risk now for the future by putting forward a clear and relevant definition of the liberal agenda, before it starts to think of producing manifestos and focus leaflets.

Once such risk for the Lib Dems would be to raise the issue of a possible hung parliament. It has been said that the proximity of the two main parties is squeezing out the third, but in reality the Lib Dems could be the lynchpin at the next general election, playing king maker. This should not be treated as a taboo subject. The influence that we as a party could wield in these circumstances should be hailed as positive aspect of our political role, while silencing critics who label us irrelevant.

All in all, I believe it is a shame that Ming has resigned and we are facing another leadership election. But as we now find ourselves in this position, I do hope that Nick Clegg decides to ‘throw his hat into the ring’. His excellent handling of Home Affairs has demonstrated his capability to fill the role the party needs.

Whoever wins, though, will have a tough time ahead, but can take comfort from the fact that the third party in British politics is robust and likely to rise again.

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