At the moment, it looks as if the main candidates in this race will be Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. Caveats cannot be stressed enough: remember when Mark Oaten looked like a real challenger and Chris Huhne a mere also ran? We can’t dismiss the other potential challengers; Steve Webb, Ed Davey and Susan Kramer are all serious prospects in my book, although I doubt the latter will stand with that be-cheekboned and be-millioned Tory dilettante parked on her lawn.
Looking at Huhne and Clegg, I suppose I have to declare my hand here. Chris Huhne was the only candidate offering a clear vision which filled me with any real enthusiasm during the last leadership election. His wariness about going for a safe pair of hands and his enthusiasm for marrying our taxation and environmental policy both proved spot on. He is the more intellectual of the two and, in my view, the one whose instincts I trust more.
Nick Clegg meanwhile, while clearly bursting at the seams with nice guy charisma, didn’t only bottle in during the last contest (which was probably a wise course of action), he became Ming’s greatest cheer-leader – something which never rang true for me – and seemed to be behind much of the bad-temperedness of Ming’s campaign. He demonstrated poor judgement by agreeing to do that Andrew Rawnsley interview at party conference, which very much resembled the launch of a leadership bid, and I question the decision of his team to launch his campaign SIX HOURS (I have the email) after the announcement of Ming’s resignation – he couldn’t even wait for dawn. Fundamentally, I’m yet to be convinced that he has a big picture view on where the party should go from here. The fact that over the summer he was banging on about the need for a party narrative, a theme that the party formally began exploring two years earlier, rather than offering a narrative of his own, spoke volumes.
So, all things being equal, I remain a Huhney Monster. But here’s the thing. I’ve just seen a party leader destroyed, in my judgement, largely because the media simply would not give him an even break over his age. I’ve just read a day’s worth of newspapers assuring me that the media had nothing to do with his resignation and that it had everything to do with wicked, back-stabbing Lib Dems, but it doesn’t ring true. Right now I’m all too aware of their power and the party’s inability to challenge it meaningfully.
Most of the media appears to have decided that Clegg is the only choice. The papers have been full of theories that Huhne was the one who knifed Ming (something which Ming himself has now strenuously denied and which begs the question who was doing the briefing?). The Times leader all but barked its orders to us yesterday:
If the mediocre Mr Huhne is anointed, his party is doomed to insignificance, while the clearly more capable Mr Clegg seems to understand that a combination of market economics and social conscience will have popular appeal.
Well, that’s me told. My concern is, are we really ready for another fight with the media? Can we afford to make what they consider to be another “wrong” decision?
These are utterly craven questions to ask, I readily admit. If the party was where it was at in 2006, I’d have answered an unequivocal “yes”. Currently however, I’m wondering if that is just vanity. I’m not sure I have the stomach for the fight.
On the other hand, the Federal Executive has declared that such pondering is not to be tolerated. Some bloody moron managed to fix it in their minds that it all had to be over by Christmas. Why Christmas? Surely the holiday season would be the perfect time for the party to reflect on its future? Surely a Spring ballot could tie in with our Spring conference, providing our new leader with the perfect launchpad? Surely it would be better to give the contenders the time to plan their campaigns instead of forcing them to rush into it all? Surely it was that mad rush which made the last contest so gaffe-strewn and uninspiring? Surely in Vince Cable we have a capable acting leader who is perfectly able to hold the fort? I could go on, but in short was an appalling decision that the party will pay the price for if it does not get reversed quickly.
Basically, what I’m saying is that I want time to think, and I want the candidates to have time to think as well. Gareth Epps asks six very pertinent questions over on Lib Dem Voice. If during the process of this contest we don’t come some way to answering them, it will have been a wasted exercise.
In the meantime I am genuinely at a loss as to whether to throw my lot in with a specific candidate, to help co-ordinate the internal party debate, or to simply sulk. Maybe the real contest is for Party President, which will be held next autumn come what may. Normally a deathly dull contest on the odd occasion that there is a contest at all, we at least have time to plan for this one. Just a thought.