Sir Menzies Campbell: 'We are not into coalitions. We are into maximising Liberal votes and seats'

Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats
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The Independent Online

When Sir Menzies Campbell was first elected MP for North East Fife, he won by 1,441 votes. By coincidence, 1441 is also the number of the UN resolution, on which the legal case for the war in Iraq was based.

"I've just realised that," remarks Sir Menzies with a quizzical look, as he tours his Scottish constituency with an entourage of party activists - including a retired lollipop man.

The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats has been paying closer attention to UN resolution 1441 than most politicians. As the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman and senior lawyer, he is in constant demand for his ability to dissect the Government's legal case for war.

One minute he is on Newsnight debating regime change, the next he is on Question Time arguing that Tony Blair took Britain to war "on a false prospectus".

Driving through the picturesque Fife countryside, with his elegant wife, Elspeth, he says Tony Blair "became so convinced of the rightness of action that he allowed all other considerations, including his own judgement, to be subordinate".

In the House of Commons, the Tories and Labour say Sir Menzies, who combines verbal dexterity with forensic precision, is their most feared and respected Liberal Democrat opponent.

On one occasion, after listening to a speech by Sir Menzies, or "Ming" as he is known, one Tory grandee stood up in the House and declared respectfully: "Menzies Campbell looks like a Tory and sounds like a Tory, but somehow the policies don't come out quite right."

Mr Blair acknowledged his personal respect last year by recommending him for a knighthood. But if he imagined the honour would dim the Scottish QC's criticism over Iraq he was wrong.

"The Prime Minister made one of the best speeches in the House of Commons for 50 years on 17 March [on Iraq]," says Sir Menzies with apparent generosity. "But that has inevitably been diminished by the knowledge that the facts on which it was based were incorrect, the representation as to the strength of the intelligence was unjustified and the legality was, at the very least, doubtful."

Today, knocking on doors in Fife, the hot topic is not Iraq but drugs and council tax bills. The quiet parochialism contrasts strangely with the magnitude of debate about Iraq that Sir Menzies is involved in elsewhere.

But as he walks through gardens full of painted gnomes and plaster Snow Whites to meet the locals, he seems at ease. In Auchtermuchty, a pretty town of stone-built houses dotted along winding roads, Johnny Walker, 70, emerges from his bungalow to shake Sir Menzies' hand declaring, "We've met before. I unblocked your drains."

"And a very good job you did too," replies Sir Menzies. "We've had no trouble with our drains at all since then."

The candidate zooms along with the pace of a former Olympic sprinter, knocking on 40 doors an hour. His helpers struggle to keep up and shout "slow down Ming". Despite the pace, he is careful about shutting gates behind him and not crossing lawns.

"You can lose the vote if you fail to close the gate," he observes. Back on the road, the Campbell campaign bus snakes round wynds, closes and terraces. In the pretty cobbled streets of St Andrews, where Prince William is at university, the calm is punctuated by the ring of Sir Menzies' mobile phone. It is a leader writer from a national newspaper asking for help with an editorial on Iraq.

"In spite of Brown's ex post facto support, this was Blair's war," says Sir Menzies, sketching out a quick leader column. "Whatever happens, it's a question of legacy. Mary Tudor had Calais engraved on her heart. Blair will have Iraq engraved on his heart and there is no escaping it."

Sir Menzies says that the Prime Minister "looks wounded and I think he knows it". When the premiership of Mr Blair is assessed "the balance sheet is going to have Iraq very firmly on the debit side".

He may be Mr Blair's chief critic on Iraq, but Sir Menzies is also grateful for the Prime Minister's many "acts of kindness".

Two years ago, Sir Menzies was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in his hip. He has made a remarkably swift recovery and has now been given the all-clear from cancer by his doctors. Looking back, he recalls: "One of the first letters we got was a handwritten letter from him," he says. "It is a feature of the Prime Minister that he is capable of acts of great kindness."

He admits that, as he was undergoing chemotherapy, he thought his political career was all but over. "Without being too portentous about it, at one stage I thought this would be an election campaign I would not be able to fight. When I was ill, I simply didn't know how things were going to develop." In fact, he is playing a central role in the party's campaign. When Charles Kennedy took a few days' paternity leave, it was Sir Menzies, who took over - touring the country in the bright yellow battle bus.

The media observed how comfortable and authoritative he looked in the role. On the road, he charmed old ladies in care homes, quipping: "It's lovely here; where can I sign up."

Is it a job he would like to do permanently? Sir Menzies shifts uncomfortably, as if he has been invited to commit an act of fratricide. "I just thought ..." he says slowly. But before he can finish his sentence, his quick-witted wife does it for him. "... I could do this," she says.

Sir Menzies laughs, and scales down his wife's ambitions. "I could do this ... for these limited purposes," he clarifies.

But already in Westminster dining rooms - where "who's next?" is a perennial debate - the gossip is that Sir Menzies would be the most suitable candidate to succeed Mr Kennedy. As an experienced and reassuring figure, he would make an able caretaker leader, until the next generation find their feet in the Commons. But Sir Menzies refuses to entertain such notions.

"Any conceit that I might have had about that is long since gone," he says, almost regretfully.

Would he rule it out indefinitely? "I rule it out," he says.

Elspeth has other ideas. "Never say never, Ming," she pipes up from the front seat.

But her husband is refusing to entertain hypotheticals.

"What if, for example, Mr Kennedy decided to pack it in during the next Parliament and quit to pursue a normal life with his new son, would Sir Menzies be prepared to take over? "I don't contemplate it even as the remotest of possibilities," he says.

The party's former leader, Paddy Ashdown, revealed in his diaries that Sir Menzies once came tantalisingly close to power. Mr Blair was planning a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 1997 and Sir Menzies was set to take a cabinet seat.

With Mr Kennedy rising in the polls, the prospect of a hung parliament is once again not too outlandish. If Labour failed to get a working majority could the Liberal Democrats really walk away?

"I think we could," says Sir Menzies. "We are not into coalitions. We are into maximising Liberal votes and Liberal seats."

But what if Mr Blair offered to bring in proportional representation, scrap tuition fees and introduce free personal care - three main prongs of the Liberal Democrat manifesto - in return for support? "Charles Kennedy has made it absolutely crystal clear and I am totally in agreement with the strategy," says Sir Menzies. "We are not in the bidding game. This is not an extended game of contract bridge."

He may rule out a pact but it does not take too great a leap of imagination to see Sir Menzies in the cabinet. He looks like a foreign secretary and certainly sounds like one. Elspeth - the daughter of Major General Roy Urquhart, who led British forces at Arnhem and was portrayed in A Bridge Too Far by Sean Connery - would certainly look at home entertaining at Chevening, the foreign secretary's country residence.

"Elspeth is very happy in Lynedoch Place [their Edinburgh town house]," he says. But Elspeth does not look entirely convinced. She spent her childhood traipsing round the Sudan and Malaya after her father - an excellent preparation, surely, for the role of wife to the foreign secretary. "She is extremely happy living in Lynedoch Place," repeats Sir Menzies pointedly.

Elspeth, or "little e" as he affectionately calls her, maintains a diplomatic silence.

The CV

Born: 22 May 1941 in Glasgow

Educated: MA and LLB at Glasgow University; post-graduate studies in international law at Stanford University, California


1975: Chairman, Scottish Liberals

1977: Advocate depute in the Crown Office

1987: Elected to Parliament for North East Fife

1992: Liberal Democrat foreign affairs and defence spokesman

1997: Spokesman for foreign and commonwealth Affairs

2003: Deputy Leader