Bruce Anderson: The Lib Dems will have a bad conference, although in electoral terms it may not matter

As a result of Ming's manifest weakness, the most insignificant MP feels free to patronise him
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The Independent Online

The Liberal party and intellectual analysis hardly seem to belong in the same sentence; who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Yet butterflies give pleasure, unlike contemporary liberalism, a cross between a black dwarf and a spittoon. In astronomy, black dwarves are shrunken dead stars: how better to describe the pygmy heirs of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George? Spittoons are used by those who need to void their mouths of something unpleasant. That, alas, describes many voters' response to current politics. Hence the Liberals' undeserved popularity.

Their leaders make hideous mistakes, as do some of their MPs. Other Liberal MPs make no attempt to conceal their unhappiness about the leadership's performance. As an effective party of opposition, let alone a potential partner in government, the Liberals disappear from the radar screen. Then there is a by-election or an opinion poll - and the voters are primarily interested in spitting on one or both of the two main parties.

This helps to explain the Liberals' chronic irresponsibility. If your electoral standing bears no relation to your merits, what incentive is there to take yourself seriously? Just be as vague as possible and try to assure all the voters that you agree with them.

That does explain the Liberals' unpopularity at constituency level, with Tory and Labour activists. At election time, Liberals will ask everyone what most upsets them. When the conversation finishes, the voter is convinced that his grievances are Liberal policy.

Yet some Liberals are prepared to tell some of the truth, at least about Menzies Campbell. In advance of the Liberal Conference, some weekend papers had anonymous briefings on Ming, by Liberals. A lot of them are worried about their leader. They want to surround him with women. They want him to wear snazzier suits and not to wear glasses - or at least, if he is blind without them and cannot bear contact lenses, to wear snazzier glasses. They do not want him to look and sound like an auld Scots dominie with a bit part in Dr Finlay's Casebook.

They are talking about the poor old fellow as if he were a recalcitrant grandpa, at the beginning of gaga-hood, who will insist on going for walks without his overcoat; who needs to be under the tutelage of a socially acceptable version of Goneril and Regan. How are the sort of mighty fallen.

Before the last election, some senior Tories were worried about Ming. Their anxieties were summarised at the American Embassy election-night party in November 2004. Ming arrived. He was bounding around like a spring lamb: the epitome of fitness. This was good news. There had been a brush with cancer, so everyone was delighted to see him looking as if he had never had a day's illness in his life.

Then Charles Kennedy arrived. He was not bounding around. He was not the epitome of fitness. He looked dreadful. Yet it was only 10 o'clock at night; too early, surely, to be explained by drink. But heresembled a painting by Munch's Highland cousin: "The Gloom", by Tam McMunch. It seemed quite likely that Charlie would not be well enough to fight the next election as leader. In that case, Ming would take charge, which was bad news for all southern English Tories who had seats to win - or defend - from the Liberals.

It later became clear that those anxious Tories were underestimating both Charlie's appetite and his resilience. They were also overestimating Ming Campbell's resilience. As soon as he became leader, there was a difficulty. The commentators started listening to him, and he could not withstand that scrutiny. As a senior Tory cruelly, but accurately, put it the other day, "no one can remember anything which Ming has said."

Poor Ming Campbell is not solely to blame. The British diplomatic and Europhile establishment bears a heavy responsibility. Such persons organise endless causeries, colloquies and conferences at which there is only one rule.

However tedious the language, however banal the point, no criticism is permitted as long as the speaker is in favour of Euorpe. Even characters such as Douglas Hurd or Chris Patten, by no means incapable of impatience, will force themselves to smile while swimming through an afflatus of platitude; will compel bored features into a rictus of concentration while being entertained with distant and laborious glimpses of the obvious.

Poor Ming. It was all too much of a temptation. He ought to be a lively fellow. A Scottish lawyer and a distinguished athlete; that sounds like a blend of Jeffrey Archer and Lord Braxfield. But he is not so interesting as that. He has a mind which is naturally attuned to cliché, commonplace and vanity. So when the dullest of his utterances - a lot of competition for that accolade - were hailed as statesmanship, he allowed himself to be flattered.

For 22 years, he was flattered. But then he became his party's leader. Everyone said he was a future foreign secretary in a Lib-Lab coalition. He would make a better one than Margaret Beckett, but that is not a relevant criterion. No one has ever taken Mrs Beckett seriously; it was Ming Campbell's misfortune that there were attempts to take him seriously. People started asking what all this guff actually meant. When they did so, he merely became peevish. Ming was a good friend of Roy Jenkins and may even have nourished the illusion that he was Roy's intellectual equal. So he would have been, had Roy been lobotomised.

As a result of Ming's manifest weakness, the most insignificant Liberal MP now feels free to patronise him, which will continue until the election. This does not necessarily mean that the Liberals will do badly at that election.

In 1970, the Liberals were almost wiped out: reduced to six seats, three held by three-figure majorities. But that was the last election in which the two main parties sat securely on their twin thrones. Among traditional Labour voters, there is a great deal of disillusion. It is by no means certain that any possible successor to Mr Blair could put this right.

David Cameron has won back a lot of southern English Tories who had been inclined to vote Liberal because they did not feel it was altogether moral to vote Tory. But Mr Cameron has not yet done enough to appeal to discontented Tories who believe that the country is going to the dogs and who are exasperated by his failure to hear them bark. The Liberals are at least as good at stealing poujadist Tory votes as they are at winning over high-minded ones.

The Liberals are unlikely to have a happy conference. There is too much grumbling, about both policies and the leader. But this need not matter. The Liberals need not worry whether they are feeling happy. As long as lots of other people are feeling unhappy, they can relax.