Sean O'Grady: He took over too late and never defined his direction


The sad truth about Menzies Campbell's leadership of the Liberal Democrats is that it just came too late.

Had he challenged for the leadership in 1999 and taken on Charles Kennedy things might have been very different. Then, however, his politics, rather than his age, was against him and his devotion to the now-forgotten "project", a closer relationship with Labour, did for him then.

As it happens, the claim of ambition never dimmed. When the opportunity arrived through the weakness of Kennedy's position, Campbell seized it. He was, in that sense, ready for leadership but what was missing was a sense of what he should do with that leadership.

Campbell had two models of leadership for his party readily available. He could have taken the line of Paddy Ashdown, which was that whatever he did he made sure he was taking the party in a clearer, strategically defined direction.

Alternatively, and possibly less to Campbell's taste, he could have taken the famously laid-back approach that Charles Kennedy adopted. Kennedy realised something that Liberal Democrat politicians have to accept sooner or later, which is that their role is essentially reactive and that, try as they might, however they try, the political climate is usually against them.

Menzies Campbell's problem was that he adopted neither and it was never entirely clear where he was intending to take the party. The party and their leader completed a process that was started under Kennedy, which was to leave behind a facile "tax and spend" approach. But no matter what tacticians and thinkers did, an alternative "vision" of a liberal Britain eluded them.

We will no doubt know soon the true story of this assassination, given Campbell's role in the downfall of Charles Kennedy. He, by the way, could be forgiven for enjoying a celebratory cup of tea with two large lumps of Schadenfreude. It may be that the party president, Simon Hughes, who can have no leadership ambitions of his own any longer, did the deed. Or Vince Cable, of course.

However I think the real assassin is sitting on the other opposition bench and his name is David Cameron.

Just as it wasn't really the drink that did for Kennedy as much as Cameron's new-found appeal and reinvigoration of the Tories, so it was for Menzies Campbell. Had he being riding high on poll ratings of 20 or 25 per cent none of this would have happened. However, on 12 or 13 per cent, the swing at the next election would have almost wiped out the party.

Much talent would have been lost. In the future, the talent in evidence on the Liberal Democrat benches – Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg, David Laws – will have to try to repair the damage.

The author is former press officer to Paddy Ashdown

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary