Sir Menzies Campbell has tried to silence another bout of grumbling about his leadership of the Liberal Democrats amid further evidence that the party is slipping back in the opinion polls.
The Independent's latest "poll of polls" shows the Liberal Democrats ended 2006 on 18 per cent, two points lower than a year ago and four points down on their performance at the 2005 general election.
The weighted average of last month's polls by ICM, Ipsos MORI, Populus and YouGov puts the Conservative Party on 37 per cent, four points ahead of Labour on 33 per cent. A year earlier, the Tories were on 37 per cent, Labour on 35 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 20 per cent.
The third party appeared to receive a mini-boost after Sir Menzies was elected as Charles Kennedy's successor in March. Its rating rose from 19 per cent that month to 22 per cent in April but then fell back.
If the latest figures were repeated at a general election, Labour would be the largest party with 302 seats and the Tories on 274, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the "poll of polls". The Liberal Democrats would have 43 MPs, 20 fewer than at present, but would potentially hold the balance of power. Other parties would win 31 seats.
Yesterday, Sir Menzies challenged any internal critics to put up or shut up as he shrugged off criticism by one unnamed Liberal Democrat MP who was reported to have questioned whether he should lead the party into the next election. He said he would do that and lead the party beyond the election, adding: "I'm not setting any time limits for myself. Nor should anyone else."
He told BBC Radio 4: "I don't pay much attention to people who are unnamed. If there is a Liberal Democrat MP who thinks that then he ought to come and see me. My door is open and I shall happily deal with him and anyone else who is of that opinion. I was elected by the party some nine months ago. In that period I have restored the stability which the party required and we're making progress."
Sir Menzies dismissed defections by former Liberal Democrat candidates to the Tories, saying they happened "all the time" to all the parties. "I wish people didn't defect but the fact of the matter is I'm not going to allow the defection of three disappointed candidates to stand in the way of the progress the party is making and the sense of self-confidence we have."
When he became Liberal Democrat leader, the public had a favourable impression of Sir Menzies. According to Ipsos MORI, almost a third of voters approved of his performance then, with only 13 per cent disapproving. But now the number of people satisfied with his performance has dropped to 22 per cent, while 31 per cent are dissatisfied. That gives him a "net satisfaction index" of minus nine points, a worse rating than David Cameron or Gordon Brown, his likely opponents at the next election.
Even among Liberal Democrat supporters, there appear to be doubts about Sir Menzies. Less than half of those who say they intend to vote for the party are satisfied with his performance, down from 61 per cent after he took over as leader.
Poll of polls
Lib Dems 18
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