Rumblings by grassroots Liberal Democrat supporters about the leadership of Sir Menzies Campbell broke into open last night, increasing the prospect that he will urged to stand down before the next election.
Gordon Brown's delay of the general election until 2009 has led to a whispering campaign among senior Liberal Democrats over the wisdom of allowing Sir Menzies to lead the Liberal Democrats into the campaign when he is approaching 70 years of age.
Sir Menzies, 66, rejected suggestions at his party conference that he is too old, but Liberal Democrats were dismayed to see their ratings fall in the polls before Mr Brown decided against calling a November election. One poll showed the Liberal Democrats had slipped as low as 11 per cent, which would have cost many Liberal Democrat MPs their seats, if Mr Brown had gone ahead with an autumn election.
Most Liberal Democrat MPs have been publicly loyal to their leader, and do not relish a renewed leadership battle after the bruising departure of Charles Kennedy over his alcoholism. However, one party activist, Jo Hayes, broke cover with a blog calling for the MPs to put Sir Menzies' leadership on the agenda.
She said: "The truth is that in the hard world of national politics Ming has had 18 months to gain acceptance as a potential prime minister by the general public, but he has not gained it.
"And I do not believe he is going to gain it by doing a bit of work on his approval ratings. We can argue until we are blue in the face that it is ageist to criticise Ming, but it is not a question of his age. It is a question of his energy levels, of his charisma or lack of it, of whether people are at ease with him, whether they feel he understands the country's problems and their own problems; above all whether he has the mix of qualities to run the country well, the toughness to withstand the sustained stress and pressure of the job, to be good in a crisis or in the series of crises that it is part of the job to cope with."
Sir Menzies has come through a serious illness, and MPs would be loath openly to challenge him in a leadership contest. Sir Menzies' supporters are expected to tough out the criticism, but a senior Liberal Democrat said Ms Hayes, a member of the Liberal Democrats' federal policy committee, was speaking for a large number of people.
"She is daring to say what we are all thinking," said a senior Liberal Democrat source. "When Charles was brought down, the grassroots were shocked because they didn't know about his drink problem. But Jo is reflecting what a lot of the grassroots are saying. It is a view many share in Parliament."
The two front-runners for the leadership, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, are avoiding any involvement in the move to bring down Sir Menzies. They would need the support of 10 per cent of the 63 Liberal Democrat MPs to run for the leadership. Senior figures in the party are warning privately that there could be a campaign to trigger an election, if Sir Menzies refuses to stand down.