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.


  1. But if your initial premise is right,why was Mark quoted as one of only two shadow cabinet members to support Kennedy at the meeting earlier this week?

    If I was Mark I would certainly not be promoting a contest now purely because he has so much work to do in neutralising the substantial sections of the party for whom he is a bit of a demon figure.

  2. I think that’s a tad harsh. Oaten has done a decent job of putting the civil liberties case, managing to appear fair and reasonable throughout. It was a more difficult balancing act than many appreciate, given the ease with which Labour could have deployed the “soft on terror” line if the Lib Dems had seemed too intransigent.

    The “tough liberalism” was a good idea in theory. The chief opposition to Liberal crime policies is that, as with terror, they’re “too soft”. Oaten was right to point out that this isn’t the case, though I agree that he could have done so in a better way.

    What worries me about this story is not really the accusations against Kennedy – he’s seen this before and survived. He has the public backing of his colleagues, and no credible challenger exists. But the very fact that no credible challenger exists suggests that no challenge is underway. To quote a BBC news piece: “If they were planning a coup they didn’t organise it very well and it appears to have collapsed at the first sign of a challenge”. I’m starting to become convinced that this story is little more than hot air.

    This story looks like an invitation to put the knife into whoever your preferred scapegoat is. Some will choose Kennedy, others will choose Oaten or even Campbell, and the media will get their “divided Lib Dems” story. If we have learned anything from observing the recent Conservative leadership campaign, it is that they benefitted dramatically from the appearance of mutual respect. Lambasting our Home Affairs spokesman as a “dangerous fool” takes us in the opposite direction. If it can be said that we should rally behind Kennedy’s leadership, it should also be said that we should not engage in witchhunts against those around him.

  3. Actually, Candy for leader sounds like a pretty good idea.

    Down-to-earth, good strategist, solidly Liberal & not associated with a ‘faction’, widely respected etc

    Quick, let’s find her a seat!

  4. If we cut through all the morass of rumours and speculation, a very stark and simple issue emerges.

    To be successful, a political party requires a leader with the following characteristics: (1) commitment to the party’s aims and objectives, (2) the support of most if not all of his colleagues, and (3) an exceptional ability to do the job.

    Charles Kennedy has characteristic (1), but not, in my opinion, (2) and (3).

    I can count at least half a dozen MPs who would do a better job as Leader than Charles Kennedy (and in the case of Campbell and Hughes, a very substantially better job).

    The question therefore has to be put: why is Charles Kennedy Leader and not one of those half dozen colleagues?

    I am appalled at the way in which this matter has been handled. Undermining one’s colleagues through the underhand briefing of journalists is a tactic we associate with Peter Mandelson, not the Liberal Democrats, as are the kind of Byzantine plots which various commentators say are taking place within the Parliamentary Party.

    Was it not David Davies who said that when one is hunting big game one has to kill with the first shot?

    Well, I think he was right. What we now have is a wounded Leader and a retinue of wounded pretenders to the throne.

    I do not doubt that Charles is now damaged goods. He does have to go at some stage in the very near future.

    What the Parliamentary Party needs to do in the coming days is ensure that the succession is smooth, civilised and orderly.

  5. If we wish to understand Mark Oaten, and put ourselves in a favourable position to judge his motives and likely future behaviour, then it is necessary to examine his past.

    Mark joined the SDP in its early days without having had any previous firm political affiliation.

    When he was elected to Watford BC (he was one the the earliest SDP councillors) he launched a campaign against glue-sniffing – having copied the idea from Councillor Mick Wilkes in Birmingham.

    So what we see is Mark adopting a populist, law-and-order campaigning stance right at the beginning of his political career. But the point to note is that what Mark was actually proposing were practical measures to dissuade young people from abusing solvents, not moral indignation and the promise of punitive sanctions.

    This might be seen as the genesis of “tough liberalism”: mildly authoritarian rhetoric aimed at a particular audience, concealing a basically liberal stance.

    As Home Affairs Spokesman, Mark has followed Party policy to the letter. He has never tried to outdo our opponents in their drive to sound and act ever more “tough” on criminal justice issues.

    After all, Mark is a PR professional by training. He looks at his customers and tries to tailor his (generally liberal) politics to what he thinks they want to hear.

    Even on the issue of ID cards, where initially he insisted on confining his attack to cost, he has more recently focused on the much more important issue of civil liberties.

    My one real worry about Mark was when he appeared to support the impending invasion of Iraq. This was on “Question Time”. Patrick Jenkin had complained about the behaviour of the French government. Mark then chipped in: “I think they’ll come round.”

    But subsequently, Mark has supported the Party’s position on Iraq without demur.

    I don’t happen to regard Mark as leadership material – at least at present. But I certainly don’t see him as a “demon”.

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