Sean O'Grady: Can Simon Hughes rescue a party in meltdown?

As a Lib Dem, you know things are bad when you console yourself with the Thorpe affair
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Ah, sandals and scandals. Watching the Liberal Democrats over the past few weeks has been a little like observing the activities of one of those weird suicide cults. For no apparent reason a group motivated by a devout belief in its eventual triumph and steadily winning new adherents one day just decides to blow itself up. Crawling out at the end of it all there are a few scorched survivors who tell of the machinations and strange rituals that led up to the bloody denouement of leader and followers, but by that point no one cares that much, as the cult isn't much of a threat, even to itself.

So it is with my own party. I still support the Liberal Democrats and I did, briefly, once work for them. I wonder quite how they managed to get to where they are today. Serious speculation about political strategy has been usurped by lurid tales of boozing and guessing games as to what was the "bizarre sex act too revolting to describe" (as the News of the World coyly put it) Mark Oaten got up to with a couple of call boys. David Cameron must be wondering if his job can get any easier.

If you're a Liberal Democrat supporter, you know things are bad when you console yourself with the Thorpe affair, 30 years ago. The Liberal Democrats have not fallen as far as the Liberals did when they found their former leader, Jeremy Thorpe, arraigned at the Old Bailey on a charge of conspiracy to murder a former gay lover. (In fact the only casualty was a great dane bitch named Rinka, but that, as they say, is another story...)

Nor is it as bad as having a leader who "rescued" fallen women and then flagellated himself. That was Gladstone, not outed at the time, true, who was followed in due course by H H Asquith, who gave the English language the euphemism "Squiffy", and David Lloyd George. Lloyd George carried on a string of sexual liaisons, sold honours and made a little cash on the side through insider dealing in shares.

So things could be worse (and when Liberal Democrats talk about emulating Gladstone and Lloyd George they should be more careful). Paddy Ashdown's famous extra-marital affair gained him an unfortunate nickname, but seems a mere footnote compared with the achievements of those titans of naughtiness of years gone by. Ditto Kennedy's drinking.

Which brings us to the men who now want to follow in their footsteps: Simon Hughes, Sir Menzies Campbell and Chris Huhne. I hope for their sakes that the private lives of those gents are blameless.

Who's the best man for the job? Sir Ming sure has the killer instinct. If he denies taking part in any secret briefing against Charles Kennedy, we must believe him. However, as his public support was confined to lukewarm remarks about Kennedy enjoying Campbell's confidence "for as long as he is leader", he hardly needed to make covert efforts to destabilise him. He killed off Kennedy and, once, almost helped kill off the Liberal Democrats as a whole. For when Ashdown was leader, no one was keener on a deal to get the party into a coalition with Tony Blair than Ming Campbell, the would-be Lib-Lab Defence Secretary, even though such a step would have split the party and very possibly destroyed it.

He seemed then like an old man in a hurry, and Sir Ming's problem is just that - his age. It's not his fault; he will camouflage it by surrounding himself with young meteors; he will, surely, never again suffer the indignity of his first session of Prime Minister's Questions. But he will look comparatively doddery when he's pushing 70 in 2009 and up against the Tory leader, and even Gordon Brown.

And can you imagine a campaign in which it is Ming versus "the two Davids" - Cameron and Miliband? Campbell is no Michael Foot, but as Mark Oaten could tell you, the press cannot be relied upon to be forgiving. If Ming were leader he would himself become the victim of merciless gossip about who was going to succeed him and when. The jockeying would begin on day one of the Ming dynasty and make the last days of Kennedy seem a vision of harmony.

Which leaves us with Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes. Mr Huhne was once a journalist on this newspaper and his only weaknesses are a slightly monotonous voice, an unfashionable infatuation with the euro and a very low profile. Not so bad, really.

Mr Hughes is a brilliant campaigner and fine speaker. His radicalism leaves little to the imagination and might split the party on left-right lines so badly that the past few weeks wouldn't be the end of the Liberal Democrats' mass suicide attempt but just the preparations. He might, on the other hand, be able to appease the party's "modernisers" and, in a Neil Kinnock sort of way, move himself and his party from the left as he confronts electoral reality. In which case Mr Hughes might be a winning proposition. Maybe only someone from that wing of the party can do it. It's a long shot though.

And, in answer to "the question everyone's asking", I don't actually know what Mr Hughes gets up to in the privacy of his Bermondsey bedroom. However I do think he may have to make even more strenuous efforts to assure some that his private behaviour is consistent with his public statements. If it isn't then the consequences would be too gruesome to contemplate.

Just remind me again, why did they get rid of Charles Kennedy?


The writer is a former press secretary to Paddy Ashdown