Rob Fenwick asks “is Ming Campbell the Liberal Democrats’ IDS?” Well, based on his performance on Newsnight this evening, the answer to that is most certainly not, and asking the question is to miss the real problem.
IDS was a no-mark that the Tories elected in an act of self-immolation. Ming was a respected and established front-bencher that the party turned to as a safe pair of hands.
Ming’s problem has been the development of a self-reinforcing narrative of the kind that the media love because it means they can trot out the same story time and again. It’s like the question “when did you last beat your wife?” – the implication is that the interviewee is a wife-beater and there is nothing the interviewee can do except attempt to get the interviewer to ask something else. Whenever Ming succeeds in moving on from the old/old-fashioned/lacks passion question, he is very effective, but sooner or later we’re stuck with the “aren’t you too old?” question for no better reason than the fact that that is what everyone else is asking.
It is very similar to the problem that Blair faces. The endless questions about when he is going to go are entirely vacuous and fail to inform the political debate. But they get asked because the media regards the fact that the media is asking the question as a reason for asking the question.
So far, Cameron has avoided being battered by his own Question. He’s currently too new, too unformed. But it would be foolish indeed to assume he won’t end up on the receiving end of the same treatment.
One of two things will happen: either Ming will successfully move on from The Question, or he will eventually be consumed by it. Slowly but surely I think he’s going the right way about moving forward but it isn’t easy. But it is up to the Lib Dem grassroots to not get distracted and to look at the substance. The real challenges for Ming are whether he delivers an effective policy agenda at our autumn conference and whether he can start to prove he is modernising our campaign strategy. If we were foolish to ditch Ming because of The Question we would almost certainly make the situation worse. Two regicides in as many years? Is that remotely a good idea?
The whole nonsense of all this for me is summed up by the fact that people criticise Ming for both lacking passion and not being Charles Kennedy. Charles had his strengths, but coming across as passionate was never even remotely one of them. The same people who are now criticising Ming for lacking passion and the party for ditching Charles were calling for Charles’ head less than 12 months ago because he seemed to be sleepwalking from one crisis to the next.
The real challenge for Ming is to develop a narrative that superimposes itself over the one he’s been lumbered with. The Lib Dems are very poor at this sort of thing; Ming needs to break the mold.