There are two British politicians who would have been extremely useful to Gordon Brown, standing shoulder to shoulder with him as he prepares for battle over the EU reform treaty. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, both have been spending the past few days preparing to run for leader of a rival political party. Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, the front-runners in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest, have precisely the experience of Europe that the Labour front bench lacks. It is a sign of these peculiarly centrist times that it is quite possible to imagine both men as members of a Brown government. But their outgoing leader, Menzies Campbell, lost his nerve and ruled out cabinet posts for the Lib Dems, so we will never know what they might have contributed.
Perhaps Brown even had the impending negotiations in mind when he made his historic offer to Campbell. The PM’s team of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Jim Murphy, minister for Europe, is solid enough. But their knowledge of the intricacies of the EU does not compare to that of Huhne and Clegg, who were both MEPs before they entered the Commons at the last election. Huhne served on the economic and monetary affairs committee of the European Parliament and acted as economic spokesman for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Clegg served as the group’s trade spokesman and set up the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform, which worked for greater transparency of European institutions. Both are cosmopolitan, multilingual and open to ideas from our European neighbours – everything new Labour under Brown is not.
Huhne and Clegg may not be household names yet. The high street recognition tests carried out by newspapers on these occasions suggest that very few people outside the Westminster village can even put a name to their photos. But among their parliamentary peers, they mark a shift in the seriousness with which the Lib Dems are perceived. With the possibility of a hung parliament always at the back of their minds, the younger generation of Labour and Conservative MPs have long assumed that these are people they will have to do business with, and soon.
Within the third party, there is now considerable pressure on other candidates not to stand. There are rumblings that Charles Kennedy wishes to throw his hat into the ring, but I understand he will be strongly dissuaded from doing so by party grandees. Vincent Cable, now acting as caretaker leader, has said “no”. On the so-called left of the party, Steve Webb has hinted strongly in an article on www.newstatesman.com that he would be keen to stand. But most senior figures want a straight beauty contest between Huhne and Clegg.
In the end, it was Brown who did for his old friend Ming. The tactic of talking up a snap election was designed to destroy the opposition figure he hates most, David Cameron. The decision to call off the election has destroyed the opposition politician he likes best. This was confirmed to me by the party’s president, Simon Hughes, who said: “The chances of Ming seeing us through the next election fundamentally changed when Gordon Brown postponed the election. From then on, things were much more difficult for Ming.”
Mocks and snipes
With the polls at 11 per cent, it is easy to mock the Liberal Democrats; and it was mockery that eventually did for Campbell. The ridicule began with quiet snipes at his performances at Prime Minister’s Questions and ended with a deafening crescendo of comment about his age. The manner of his departure was a genuine shock. On Monday afternoon, I was having tea with a senior Lib Dem in Westminster who saw Clegg and Cable whispering in a huddle. “I wonder what they are plotting,” she said, and went over to join their conversation. The group was soon joined by the former leadership candidate Mark Oaten and the party’s press spokesman Mark Webster. I later discovered that they were discussing media rumours and that none of them knew anything about Campbell’s resignation until several hours later.
But the truth is that the clamour for Campbell’s head didn’t come just from the media. It was loudest from within his own party. One member of the federal policy executive committee told me: “He wasn’t pushed. He was stabbed in the back.” Either way, it was every bit as brutal as the ousting of Ken nedy. The difference is that, after that decapitation, the party was in a state of turmoil and turned in its confusion to the reassuring figure of Campbell. There is no such doubt now.
On Tuesday night, the so-called 5/5/5 group, the Lib Dem MPs who entered parliament at the May 2005 election, met for their regular drinks in a room above the Two Chairmen pub in Westminster. The two candidates were there, as was Huhne’s campaign manager Lynne Featherstone, who is likely to play a central role in the future of the party, whoever wins. I am told the mood was buoyant and not just among those, like Featherstone, who had backed Huhne last time around.
By distracting attention from Brown’s terrible recent run of misfortune, Campbell has done Labour a great service. A revival in Lib Dem fortunes under new leadership would most likely take votes from the Tories, whose resurgence has been largely at the expense of the third party. Oddly, his resignation may turn out to be Campbell’s final act of cross-party generosity towards his old Scottish friend, the Prime Minister.