Leader's lacklustre effort leaves Liberal Democrats uneasy

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Indy Politics

The lacklustre performance of Sir Menzies Campbell at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons yesterday caused jitters among his own supporters.

Some Liberal Democrat MPs complained that he was outshone again by David Cameron, the Tory leader. His MPs denied there would be any attempts to unseat him but there are concerns among Liberal Democrats at his failure to make more impact.

It follows an opinion poll earlier this week showing the party support has dropped since early April by one point to 20 per cent, in spite of the deepening Labour crisis and poor election results.

Even allies of Sir Menzies admitted his Commons performance yesterday was "poor." One said: "We have got to do better than this. Blair was on the ropes but we didn't manage to land a punch." He admitted that Sir Menzies's second question - about the fiasco over the failure of the Government to make payments to farmers - sounded "lame."

Sir Menzies' advisers blame the state of the party machine that he inherited from Charles Kennedy. They say key decisions were taken by Mr Kennedy's inner circle, which was more focused on covering up his alcohol problem than ensuring an efficient operation. The new leader has ordered a review of the party's strategy and communications.

Another problem is lack of money for staff at this stage of the electoral cycle. The party will have 15 press officers by the next general election but currently only four posts are filled.

"We have got to raise our game," one adviser said. "To get 27 per cent of the vote in the council elections was good but it feels like a defeat because we didn't play down expectations like the other parties."

Aides are drawing up plans to "sell" Sir Menzies by contrasting his experience with the youth and inexperience of David Cameron and the shadow Chancellor George Osborne, who the Liberal Democrats will portray as a risk and a leap in the dark.

One Liberal Democrat source said: "The idea that we have loads of spinmeisters preparing great strategies is wide of the mark.

"Ming has virtually nobody in his office. They all quit when Charles went and, during the local elections, he has been going round the country with one man and a dog. It's amazing we got the result we did in the local elections."

The source added: "We have a problem following Cameron at Prime Minister's Question. We have to guess what he's going to ask and then ask something different. It's a nightmare."

Broadcasters were surprised during the local elections that Sir Menzies followed the plan laid down months earlier for Charles Kennedy. One said: "There was no attempt to rebrand the Liberal Democrats and show that he is a new leader. It was just a walk-through of the plan they inherited."

The Liberal Democrats flatlined in the local elections with a gain of just 13 seats across England as their new leader struggled in his first serious electoral test. However, Liberal Democrat leaders said the 27 per cent share of the vote was a minor victory, given the disastrous start to the year with the loss of their leader.

"If you'd told me that we would beat Labour into third place when Charles Kennedy resigned, I would not have believed you," said a one party source.

Lembit Opik, a close ally of the former leader, Mr Kennedy, last night defended Sir Menzies, and dismissed any prospect of a "coup"being staged against him.

"We were up to 27 per cent last week and it showed that we are more popular than the Government. I was quite surprised about the opinion against Charles but that looks now like a moment of madness. It's not our style. There is no way people are going to be talking about changing the leader again."

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