Contrary to the bizarre claims of Simon Hughes earlier this week, all the evidence is suggesting the Lib Dem leadership will be a close run thing between Chris Huhne and Ming Campbell. Indeed, if anything, it is pointing towards a Huhne win, with the Guardian today backing that up (although it is not entirely in his favour – the Independent did their own, much smaller, straw poll and put Ming in first place while SpecialBets reports a telephone poll that suggests a Ming win, although fails to mention who was doing the poll).
Personally, I think that the balance evidence may well prove to be wrong and that Ming will win, albeit narrowly. As I said at the time of the infamous YouGov poll, the margin of error leads me to suspect that the positions could easily be reversed, and I don’t believe that Huhne has sufficiently gained ground since then.
But this does all somewhat worry me, because I’ve been genuinely surprised at the bad management of the Ming campaign. It has increasingly become clear to me that the blame for that, combined with the candidate’s own bad temper, lies very much at the door of Mr Campbell and no-one else. My very real fear is that what we see is what we’ll get; a distant, bad tempered leader who spends every day of the campaign losing ground. That doesn’t spell out to me “bridge to the future” so much as a “bridge to oblivion”.
I know that the Mingers reading this will quickly dismiss this out of hand as a biased comment from a Huhne supporter, but it was not always thus. Before Christmas, I had reconciled myself to the fact that Campbell was the only choice to succeed Kennedy (which I suspected would happen in Summer 2006). I wasn’t filled with enthusiasm with the prospect, but I went along with the analysis that he would be a safe pair of hands who would then bow out with dignity after the next general election.
Two things changed: firstly, Campbell’s repeated failure to back Kennedy before Christmas struck me not just as a blatant attempt to undermine him, but politically foolish. Secondly, at the earliest stages his campaign floundered to an alarming degree.
Still, Hughes would be worse. My decision to back Chris Huhne, at least at first, was mainly aimed at ensuring that issues that wer important to me we kept on the agenda. I wanted to cast my first preference with my heart (Huhne) and my second preference with my head (Campbell). At the early stages of the campaign, I even spent time bombarding friends on the pro-Ming campaign with the benefit of my advice. It may not have been entirely welcome, but it was a sincere attempt to help. My second preference, at least at that stage, was still very much a positive one.
What rapidly became apparent however is that a critical mass of people, generally well informed campaigners and activists, felt exactly the same way as me. Suddenly Huhne went from being a vanity vote and into a serious proposition.
The psychological strain this has caused Campbell and his team has been clear for all to see. Many people who plumped for Campbell in the initial stages simply made the same calculation that I did and plumped for their head vote. I’m confident that a lot of them now regret that decision, but have invested far too much of their own credibility into Ming to switch horses halfway through. This tension has lead to the noises off that we were pelted with a few weeks ago, be it the “naive populism” gaffe through to the Deep Throat mouthing off about how Huhne had reneged on a deal to coronate Ming. Increasingly though, it is the candidate himself who is turning nasty.
Ming’s assault on Simon Hughes on Thursday (“I’ve learned from Simon how not to answer the bloody question“) has been widely reported. His insinuation that Chris Huhne’s integrity is open to question because he asked Ming to release him from his promise not to stand against him, is just plain daft. What does it say about Ming that he a) actively went around extracting these promises from MPs when Kennedy was still leader (despite denying it at the time) and that b) having released Huhne from his promise, he now chooses to attempt to make political capital out of it? Every time that story is trotted out it is Ming’s integrity that is brought into question, not Chris’s and he would do well to have the good grace and common sense to keep quiet about it.
One of two things will happen if Ming wins, one of which would be disastrous. He and his supporters could claim this to be a magnificant victory, claim all the spokespersonships and senior positions in the party for themselves and demand undying loyalty. The other option is that they recognise that they ran a dreadful campaign, that Huhne ran a great campaign, that whatever else you might say Huhne won the activist vote and do their best to build bridges (and not of the time machine variety). If Ming and co are vainglorious, as opposed to magnanimous, they’ll quickly learn that you can’t lead by cracking the whip. My problem is, Ming’s behaviour over the past couple of weeks increasingly leads me to suspect that is exactly what he proposes to do.
To turn things around a little bit, Nick Clegg could end up being both prescient and utterly wrong in his analysis that any other leader than Ming would have to spend their time “looking over their shoulders”. The bad tempered nature of the campaign means that if a victorious Ming failed to spend any time looking over his shoulder, he will come a cropper. Huhne on the other hand will be all too aware that most MPs didn’t support him and that he will need to spend time building their confidence in him.
Rob Fenwick took me to task yesterday for being rude – shorthand for the far better Wilcockian “crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger”. They’re both right. The fact that I am a gobshite is something I personally have long come to terms with: it makes me wholly unsuited for public office, but does enable me to say things that would otherwise not be. Ultimately, my biggest problem with Ming is that of the three candidates he reminds me of me; if that isn’t a reason not to put your “1” by his name, I don’t know what is.