Sean O'Grady: It's the Lib Dems who are the real casualties

Ming should now be in a position to deal with Tory and Labour revivals. But he isn't
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The Independent Online

Ming Campbell reminds me of Skeletor. He, if you're unfamiliar with trashy children's telly, is a time-lord baddie in the Masters of the Universe cartoons. I'm indebted to Wikipedia for this detailed CV: "Skeletor is a demon from another dimension, Infinita. He is a blue-skinned, skull-faced warlord who rules the dark side of Eternia from Snake Mountain with an iron fist. His title is Evil Lord of Destruction. He learned black magic from Hordak, the powerful warlord of Etheria, of whom he was once the second-in-command. Skeletor's betrayal of Hordak is fitting, as it is revealed that Skeletor himself built Snake Mountain". And so on.

Do you see what I mean? It bears a fairly close resemblance to Ming. At New Year 2006, the former deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats (arguably) betrayed his chief, Charles Kennedy (though Charlie didn't do himself any favours round the bars of Etheria). The triumphant Campbell demon was supposed to train his terrifying weaponry, honed in combat with other masters of the universe in the Newsnight studio, across the wider universe of politics.

Apart from the bit about ruling his domain with an iron fist (he's tightened up the leader's office, apparently), our blue-skinned skull-faced warlord hasn't lived up to his awesome promise. Ming's problem is that even when he does the right thing he looks like an observer from another universe, rather than a warrior at the centre of the battle on planet earth. On Gordon Brown's Iraq statement yesterday, for example, he raised all the correct issues, but it lacked the vicious edge in Cameron's questioning, where the Tory leader repeated Liam Fox's charge that Brown has been playing politics with the troops. Nasty, but it gets you noticed.

We saw over the weekend Ming try to move the debate about the election onto the question of fixed term parliaments. Fine, but not as punchy as just saying Brown had "bottled it". It perhaps isn't so much Ming's age, though it doesn't help (he'll be knocking on 70 by the time of the next election): it's more that he looks and sounds like he comes from another age. The issue is also leadership. Ming should by now have positioned his party to deal with Tory and Labour revivals. He hasn't. The Lib Dems are being squeezed badly.

The truth is that the Lib Dems had a lucky escape from an early election. The result would have been disastrous. According to the renowned psephologist John Curtice, on the Lib Dems average current poll rating of 13 per cent, with the Tories and Labour both on 39 per cent, Ming would have had a mere 20 parliamentary colleagues when parliament reassembled. Bright talents such as Chris Huhne, Michael Moore and Julia Goldsworthy could be among the casualties, though Ming's potential nemesis, Nick Clegg, would survive, as would David Laws and Charles Kennedy.

Of course, the Lib Dems' brilliant MPs are much loved; the party always adds to its poll ratings during a campaign when the TV has to treat them fairly; and the voters are more sophisticated than in the past, so 21 would be a low estimate. All true; but then again the south and south-west have seen stonking house price gains, and may be even more susceptible to the Tory appeal on inheritance tax and stamp duty for first time buyers. A November poll would have been a Lib Dem bloodbath, and the worst share of the vote since 1979.

Maybe there just isn't much that can be done. Perhaps the Tory revival is as inevitable as the sea change in British politics that James Callaghan detected before Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979, or as unstoppable as the Tories' exhaustion in 1997. The Liberal Democrats used to be the junior partners in a "get those sleazy Tories out" informal coalition with Labour to which the electors responded. Suddenly the Tories don't seem so hated any longer. The Lib Dems have more recently attacked Labour over Iraq and Blair's style, both of which are being defused. The Lib Dems have ditched their "tax and spend" image, but not really established a new one, or the kind of policy such as the Osborne inheritance tax proposal or Labour's windfall tax on the utilities before the 1997 election or their own old "1p on income tax for education" that has immediate appeal to Middle England.

The Lib Dems need to get a strategy. I'm reminded again of that summary of Skeletor's career: "While he had a genuinely sinister personality in the beginning, as the series progresses Skeletor is treated as more and more incompetent, often bordering on a pantomime villain. However, several episodes still show the greater extent of Skeletor's evil, such as 'The Problem With Power'". The problem with power indeed.

The writer is a former press officer to Paddy Ashdown.