Dominic Lawson: It is time to stop sneering at Sir Menzies

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The Independent Online

The official website of the Liberal Democrats is behaving oddly. If you ask it for information about any leading individual within the party then you are deluged with encomia; but click your mouse on the image of Sir Menzies Campbell CBE QC MP and all you get is "An Error Occurred".

That indeed does seem to be the view of many in the party, who still yearn for the days of "Chatshow" Charlie Kennedy and who think that Mr Kennedy was a better leader drunk than Sir Menzies sober. It is a view not confined to members of the Liberal Democratic Party. Last Saturday, the opinion pollsters YouGov measured support for the LibDems at 14 per cent, only one point higher than when the party was convulsed by Mr Kennedy's tortured admission of alcoholism, and fully nine points behind its performance at the last general election.

The newspaper which commissioned that poll devoted a leading article to blaming Sir Ming for the travails of his party: The Daily Telegraph described him as "hopeless", adding that "he seems far older than his years, and he is not exactly a spring chicken". Well, it's true that Campbell is not as physically robust as he was before his (successful) battle with cancer – but I think it odd for a newspaper with a significant proportion of readers who are much older than Sir Ming to sneer at his age.

Besides, if politicians were deemed ineligible for office once they had reached the official age of retirement then some of the Telegraph's great heroes, such as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan, would never have led their countries. Not, of course, that Ming Campbell ever will be Prime Minister; he has about as much chance of becoming President of the United States – but then the same could be said of every leader of the party since Sir Herbert Samuel 75 years ago.

In fact, Sir Ming is a bit of a throwback to an earlier, more innocent political age. He has never knowingly uttered a "soundbite". He thinks that spin is something that should be left to cricketers. If interviewed, he tries to answer the question rather than deliver pre-cooked clichés. When Sir Ming appears on public debating programmes such as Question Time or Any Questions – something the leaders of the two main parties regard as beneath them – he seldom fails to impress with the courtesy and thoughtfulness of his contributions. He is – right down to the dazzling shine on his lace-up shoes – a gent of the old school, something which once would have appealed to The Daily Telegraph (and may still do to its readers). Menzies Campbell has something else over the other party leaders: he asked the right questions – in public – over the invasion of Iraq. The four questions he put in the critical House of Commons debate in September 2002 were not answered then and still resonate today: "What is the exit strategy? Who will replace Saddam Hussein? How long would coalition troops be required to remain in Iraq? Will Iraq split up?"

It's true that Campbell is not, in general, a confident performer in the House of Commons; but he can show a feline savagery when provoked. I especially enjoyed his put-down of Quentin Davies during another debate on Iraq, when that extraordinarily self-important backbencher kept interrupting him: "I am sorry for the Honourable Gentleman if these matters require a level of intellectual engagement that he finds difficult or embarrassing."

Yesterday Ming Campbell had further vindication: only a week after he had challenged Gordon Brown to accept that it was time to withdraw our troops from Basra, the entire British force has retreated to the airport – where its only function is to protect itself. That was in fact a rare example of Ming Campbell engaging in full-frontal combat with his old friend (and new Prime Minister). One substantial criticism of Campbell that can be reasonably made is that his "auld acquaintance" with Gordon Brown seems to prevent him from appreciating just how much his Fife neighbour wants to destroy him and his party politically. Sir Ming uttered not a word of reproach when Brown went behind his back to approach Paddy Ashdown to take a Government job – not even when the Labour Party leaked this fact to the press before he could discuss the matter with his colleagues.

Ming Campbell need not invite my advice on how better to challenge Gordon Brown, but here is some: the Liberal Democrats were the only parliamentary party to call for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty and they would do themselves some good if they were to take the same line with the new version of the Constitutional Treaty which was rejected by popular votes in 2005. My impression that this is a political open goal has only been strengthened by Gordon Brown's responses on this matter on the BBC Today programme yesterday morning.

The Prime Minister told John Humphrys that a referendum was not necessary except that: "If the amending Treaty was not what we wanted then we would have a referendum." What? If Gordon Brown doesn't get what he wants then he will ask the British public to vote in a referendum for a Treaty which its own Government regards as unacceptable? Or is the Prime Minister saying that he will create political history by holding a referendum in order to solicit a "no" vote?

I'm amazed that John Humphrys, who is normally the most tenacious of interviewers, failed to pick the Prime Minister up on his astonishingly confused answer to a straight question. Ming Campbell should need no second invitation.

Apart from his slightly complacent cosiness with Gordon Brown, does the Lib Dem leader have any other significant faults? Well, for a man who sees himself in the great tradition of liberalism, it was disgraceful that he voted to ban cigarette-smoking even in private clubs. Indeed, the fact that a smaller proportion of Liberal Democrat MPs than from any other party voted for this exemption demonstrates just how much the Social Democrat tail wags the Liberal dog.

I have just one other criticism of Ming Campbell – and some might say it disqualifies him from high office. On Desert Island Discs he chose as his favourite piece of music, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Not just that, it was a performance conducted by the ghastly old former Nazi Herbert von Karajan. Ming Campbell is probably unaware that, even today, Germany's Neo-Nazis play this piece at their rallies and, of course, Wagner was not responsible for the fact that Hitler embraced his music. But The Ride of the Valkyries! It's a grotesque orchestral gallop, exuding grandiosity and pomposity in equal measure. If there is a flaw in Ming Campbell's character, that is the key to it.