Despite the fact that the initial disgruntlement may have come from Menzies Campbell, it is now looking increasingly clear that the main player behind Charles Kennedy’s woes this week was Mark Oaten.
It turns out that I did get his “Home Affairs Team” email on Tuesday after all (via an account I rarely use these days), and it is a transparent attempt to big up Oaten’s achievements shortly before an expected contest. To paraphrase the average bloke in the doorway when out canvassing, “we only ever hear from you lot at election time.” Quite.
Oaten’s interview in the Telegraph is extraordinary. He is presenting himself as the David Cameron of the Lib Dems, who himself presented himself as the Tony Blair of the Tories. It is arguable that there is only room for one Tony Blair in politics. This isn’t to say that Cameron’s strategy is wrong as Blair is already on his way out. But it is to suggest that Oaten is essentially arguing for a strategy that would see him completely edged out of any debate. Just shouting “me too!” is not a winning election strategy.
One thing is clear, his capacity for self promotion is unrivalled as this quote shows:
Mr Oaten, who has been in Parliament for four more years than Mr Cameron, made his name by increasing his majority from two votes to 21,000 in Winchester. He is convinced he can do the same for the Liberal Democrats in the 21st century.
There are so many things wrong with that paragraph, I don’t know where to begin. To start with, he had pretty much nothing to do with that 21,000 majority. Credit there should go for his agent Candy Piercy, although I don’t see her throwing her hat in the ring for leader any time soon (although she’d be better than most of the options currently on offer). But even Candy can’t steal all the credit as it was the centre of a high profile by-election at which thousands of pounds and activists were thrown, and one that the Tories were ill-advised to have called in the first place.
History could have been very different if they hadn’t; Oaten would have had to defend a majority of 2 on much fewer resources and would have been forced to take a back seat while concentrating on local matters, as did Norman Lamb from 2001-2005. Fortunately, Lamb’s opponent was a poisonous chocolate teapot with an inexaustable capacity to repel voters; Oaten couldn’t have depended on getting the same.
But, if Oaten is to claim sole credit for his 21,000 majority, then he must also solely accept blame for it being reduced to 8,000. That, by projection, is a far more likely outcome if he were to be made leader and allowed to pursue his strategy of mediocrity.
“Tough liberalism,” which he is so proud of, has done the party few electoral favours. It has made us look quite stupid with his insistence that Labour’s licensing law reforms would create a “Christmas crisis” (see previous posts). One of the rules I set my candidate before agreeing to do their artwork for the campaign was that we wouldn’t use this approach on any of our literature. I’m happy to say that they accepted this, and even stopped me from taking on too populist a line when the pressure occasionally got the better of me. That subsequently elected MP now has a comfortable majority. Meanwhile, a great many candidates that pursued the “by the book” tactics laid out by the party’s Campaigns Department under Oaten’s guidence (you may have seen the “CRIME WAVE!!!!” type of leaflet) saw their campaigns go into full scale reverse.
The reason for that is simple; shout too much about something you clearly aren’t just makes people uneasy. It isn’t a “shield” approach, as Chris Rennard would put it, because it simply exposes you to anxieties that the electorate were unconscious of (during my brief career as a telesales parasite, we were ordered never to use the phrase “no problem” for exactly the same reason). You can only defend a liberal crime strategy by sounding like a liberal; as Lembit Opik suggests in his Meeting the Challenge essay this week, it is better to be consistent than to appear so desperate for popularity you will say anything.
In many ways Oaten is already a busted flush. He established the pressure group Liberal Future as a vehicle for promoting his leadership bid; that front has now collapsed, mainly due to the fact that his supporters who ran it have lost all faith in him and are now backing other horses. As I said earlier this week, any contender who really stands a chance to defeat Kennedy at this stage would have to have at least a dozen MPs supporting him, a few of which would be prepared at this stage to put the knife into Kennedy in public. To launch a bid without even this level of support is just vanity.
A closer analogy to Oaten is not Cameron but Hague; a man woefully out of his depth who understands that something needs to be done, but lacks the ability to see what and ends up thrashing about in all directions. Also like Hague, he suffers from that affliction suffered by many men of his age: male pattern baldness.
The only difference is that Hague made it his defining characteristic while Oaten seems to be sporting something that looks vaguely like a combover. Combover indeed would appear to summarise his whole approach: a desperate attempt to create the impression that there is something on top when it is manifestly obvious to the person in the street that it isn’t the case. He is a dangerous fool.