My leadership dilemma

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.


  1. I think I’m going with the sulk option, since Lynne Featherstone has declared herself a non-runner.

    I never shared your enthusiasm for Chris Huhne last time, but surely if he was the man for the job he’d have managed to use the interest in him from the previous election to establish himself as the second-highest profile Lib Dem in the country?

    Another factor against him is that sections of the press are actively contemptuous of him, as a result of having worked with him when he was a journalist. For example, I happened to be interviewed by one broadsheet writer a few months ago who, during his research, found my blog and the writing I’d done on the last election. He emailed to say: “I was amused by your piece on Chris Huhne, who I used to work for when he was business editor of the Independent. A more self-contented man you will rarely find.” I don’t think he, or others like him, will cut a Huhne leadership any more slack than they did the Campbell leadership.

    Clegg, on the other hand, gives them wet dreams – for most of the same reasons as I formed an instant dislike of him when I met him. Smiley-smiley bonhomie and an aura of superiority. Ugh.

    Basically, our options are to either elect the man the press wants us to elect (in which case they may help him put the boot into Cameron and Brown) or to disobey them and be flayed alive forever after. With those options, why do we *need* a long campaign?

    So – if you decide to sulk, I’ll be right there with you.

  2. I’ve heard even Chris describe himself in similar words to “self contented” when asked why, having made a fortune (why do people point to his journalism and not to Fitch & Co, his “real” success), would he want to be an MEP, MP and then party leader. I kind of like the idea of someone who has got so close to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Some describe it as “naked ambition” when they see someone at the self-actualization stage, to me it means “no axe to grind” and “no personal gain desired”.

  3. The reason I joined the Lib Dems is not because I want “a combination of market economics with a social conscience”. If I wanted that I might as well be a wet Tory or Blairite. We need to stake out our own radical ground and to be fair we have done that under Ming. I will supporting the candidate who will be looking to take this agenda forward, not a Cameron or Blair mark two PR Man.

  4. I’m not buying this ‘It weren’t us, guv’ from the media either and I think we are being arrogant and/or naive if we think we can ignore their view in terms of our choice of party leader.

    I have to say that I’ve been a big fan of Nick Clegg for some reason and I’m surprised, particularly at Andy’s comments – I get a completely different reaction! But then again I may be coming from a different angle; which reminds me, if memory serves me right haven’t we recently been losing much of the female vote that came to us over the last few years, back to the Tories.

    However, who’d heard of Chris at the start of the campaign last time around? And Cameron came from a relatively unknown spot in the Tory leadership competition, so there’s all to play for, for many more!

    It would be great to have some more women coming forward. Duncan Borrowman is concerned that there should only be one…presumably so the ‘woman’s vote’ isn’t split between them, as has so often happened before. I think this would be a great shame however, as there are many flavours of female leadership candidate out there than there are men. I’m sorry Lynne has ruled herself out but Susan Kramer and Julia Goldsworthy could do a lot worse than run.

    Maybe I had better go and write my own post about this, rather than clutter up your comments page with my ramblings……

    and on the speed, I am with Andy on this one…even with vince at the top this is inherently a period of uncertainy and they should always be as short as possible or we may find the political equivilant of our share price going down even further.

  5. I’m with you Jock. Dan Hannan and Nick Cohen’s disrecommendation for Huhne doesn’t make him a bad person in my book. But like Andy, I’m just not sure if I’ve got the spirit for another fight, or if the party has it in it either.

    Not so much a choice between my head and my heart as a choice between my head (and heart) and my bladder.

  6. Jo: I think there are several reasons why we have so few likely female candidates. Firstly, there is age. A lot of them are very young and have only been MPs for a couple of years. All three of the “J”s would be viable candidates after the next-but-one General Election, but we have to survive that long first.

    Another big factor is marginality. The sad truth is that a lot of our female MPs are in extremely marginal seats. Susan would be great, and should be relatively secure, but by all accounts Zac Goldsmith is intend on buying himself her seat and she has that to contend with. One of the consequences of what Chris Rennard claims is his plan for more diverse MPs – which involves spending the diversity fund in seats we wouldn’t otherwise target where we have BME or female candidates – is that they will always tend to be more vulnerable, so don’t expect this situation to improve.

  7. I think there is no question that Chris Huhne raised his stock immeasurably at the last leadership election, and I largely agree with all the good things you say about him.

    But you are just as right that he doesn’t engage well with large sections of the media and the public, and Nick does.

    And frankly I don’t recognise anything of Nick in some of these negative descriptions.

    Just as I don’t think the media destroyed Ming out of malice – I think they did it out of laziness and habit – in much the same way that John Major was constantly attacked for a lack of credibility and barely permitted to speak on the issues. So if they like Nick, we shouldn’t assume that that is for the wrong reasons either.

  8. I’m not sure that supporting Nick out of “laziness and habit” is any better than having a malicious agenda, but I take your point. Maybe I am too hard on Nick, but I went from being one of the people urging him to stand in 2006 to feeling quite browned off by his conduct during the campaign.

    I’m not ruling out supporting him though. I would just like better reasons than charisma and the fact that the media want him.

  9. Similar dilemma, slightly different angle. I’ve got a heck of a lot of time for both Chris and Nick. Neither represent something in the party that I oppose. Both have strong but different cases to be leader this time. To explicitly join either leadership campaign then seems somewhat disloyal to the other.

  10. I have to agree. It’s very easy to get lost in Clegg mania – I can’t help getting rather excited when I see him on television or find something he’s written but I am trying to restrain myself and wait for his actual platform to be revealed.

    Obviously the candidate with the most appeal to the broadest base of people would be a good start, and any positive vibes from the media should not be sniffed at considering media relations seem to be our biggest problem.

    Still, I’m looking for a reformer and I’m feeling a bit silly about assuming that Clegg will have a reforming agenda… we’ll have to wait and see.

  11. James,

    It’s not a question of whether we have the stomach to defy the media. The question is whether we have the means; will we find a leader with a force of quality that the media have to accept?

    That question can only be answered by the candidates to be leader.

  12. I’m not sure a Lib Dem raving on about market economics is necessarily going to enthuse the party. What about all the Lefties that Gordon Brown has abandoned? Why not chase after their votes?

  13. James

    I agree with you, the timing is a bit rushed, especially as things quieten down over the Christmas period. I can’t see why it can’t be stretched out into the New Year.

    Still, at least you and other, UK-based members will actually be able to vote. As I will be abroad from early November until the New Year I’ve been told by Cowley Street that there’s no possibility of me being able to participate: I’d have to change my postal address and I don’t think the postal services lend themselves to a speedy trip between the UK and South America.

    Surprising too, to discover the party hasn’t got any method of enabling members to vote electronically or online in place. I would have thought that a party as wired up as ours would have considered that!

    Of course, had the party followed my course and not opted for the ‘safe pair of hands’ option last year, I wouldn’t be trying to find this all out!

    C’est la vie!


  14. Yes, but given the fact that this article was posted at midnight on Wednesday and the total lack of any psychic powers on my part, you’ll have to live with it.

  15. Electoral reform. The NHS. Privatisation. Let’s talk real issues here and leave the personalities to the media.

    [Why all the secrecy about what happened to Ming? What sort of open party are we if Ming is forbidden from telling us what really happened?]

    If I want a conservative I will vote Tory or Labour. Give us a real alternative, please! Let’s see where the contenders stand.

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