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

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The Independent Online

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