Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Ming the Tortoise can still beat Cameron the Hare
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The Independent Online

In June, Ikea announced it was to become Britain's first major retailer to charge customers for plastic bags. Although the news emerged on a Sunday morning, by 10am the Tories had approached the company to see if David Cameron could be associated with the retailer's new environmentally friendly policy.

The next morning, the Tory leader visited an Ikea store, met the firm's executives and popped up on television to send another "I am green" message to the public. After 5pm, an e-mail appeared in my inbox: the Liberal Democrats had finally woken up to the story and had issued a statement praising Ikea. The gesture received little or no coverage.

A tiny episode, but it illustrates how David Cameron has parked his Tory tanks on the Liberal Democrats' natural turf - and is running a more professional day-to-day operation.

The Liberal Democrats have long been the greenest of our three main parties. But in Opposition land, Mr Cameron makes the weather, and not only on the environment. On Monday, he made an impressive speech on foreign affairs, rejecting the neo-conservatism of the Bush administration, Tony Blair's slavish support for Washington, and describing himself as a "liberal conservative".

As they gather in Brighton this weekend for their autumn conference, the Liberal Democrats need to answer the threat posed by the Cameron Conservatives. They have a strong weapon in their locker: a radical package of green taxes which would be much more redistributive than the party's existing policy of imposing a 50 per cent top tax rate on earnings above £100,000. There will be a row about giving up the symbolic 50 per cent rate and the vote could be close. Unlike the Labour and Tory conferences, the Liberal Democrat one decides policy, so next Tuesday's decision matters.

It certainly matters for Sir Menzies Campbell, who has had a difficult baptism as leader. Whereas Mr Cameron hit the ground running when he inherited the Tory crown, Sir Menzies played the tortoise rather than the hare.

There was a reason: he had a pretty rotten inheritance - a party machine sidelined by a leader's office often preoccupied by covering up Charles Kennedy's alcohol problem. Sir Menzies has played it by the book. Other leaders would have installed cronies, but he insisted that jobs were properly advertised. So it has taken time to knock the party into shape. His changes should make the Liberal Democrats a more professional outfit - and ensure they are not so eclipsed by the Tories. The new team has its first big test in Brighton next week - a rare media platform for the third party.

Sir Menzies is hugely respected by his party, whose senior figures are impressed with his internal management. So I would discount the inevitable speculation that he might be deposed before the next general election. The Liberal Democrats agonised long and hard before dumping Mr Kennedy, as Greg Hurst's interesting new book, Charles Kennedy - A Tragic Flaw, makes clear. He concludes: "The suspicion, held by some, that Menzies Campbell plotted the overthrow of Charles Kennedy was simply wrong."

The book should calm the Liberal Democrat activists who were furious they had no say over whether Mr Kennedy should remain leader.

Mr Kennedy will have a high profile this week, and will surely receive a rapturous reception when he addresses the conference. Despite his private problems, he was - and is - a massive electoral asset.

Now Sir Menzies needs to translate all his good work behind the scenes into his public performances and make an impact with the voters. After a poor start, his Commons performances have picked up. But early impressions stick. If people based their votes on what they heard on the radio, his ratings would go through the roof. But the medium which matters most - television - is not kind to him, partly because of his age.

The former Olympic sprinter has the energy for the long race ahead, but knows he needs to show it. His antidote to the "age" problem is to allow his impressive young frontbench stars to share the limelight, while he plays the experienced team captain.

However, this may have limited impact: in a presidential age, for many voters, the leader is the party.

The other problem for Sir Menzies is how to carve out a distinctive agenda when the three main parties are competing in an increasingly crowded political centre ground. Mr Cameron has been pitching openly for Liberal Democrat voters. So will Gordon Brown when he becomes Labour leader.

Luckily, the Liberal Democrats are not short of fresh ideas. Last week, the independent liberal think tank CentreForum and party frontbenchers produced a timely book called Britain After Blair. It has been dubbed "Orange Book Part 2" after a more controversial collection of economically liberal essays in 2004. The new book, on how economic and social liberalism can be fused, shows Liberal Democrats are asking questions that Labour has failed to address, and that the Tories have been ducking.

They don't pretend to have all the answers. But they do have the support of one in five voters; and many more will share their values. They could easily hold the balance of power after the next general election. Sir Menzies is a man of the centre-left and it is hard to imagine him forming a "liberal conservative" alliance with Mr Cameron, whom he regards as a fraud. But he might be able to do business with Mr Brown, so we shouldn't write off the Liberal Democrats just yet. Remember: it was the tortoise who won in the end.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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