The Sketch: Chairman Charlie has to go. Very slowly

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The Independent Online

What's wrong with the tawny Scot who has increased party support by 50 per cent and won more seats than anyone thought possible?

The drivel factor. Talking drivel is more of a problem than you cynics think. It's as though his brain has been pickled. Maybe it has been. His trailed speech suggests he is going to accuse Tony Blair of a lack of clarity. I rarely succumb to indignation but the First Law of Politics (always accuse your opponent of your own most obvious fault) has rarely been so well exemplified. My compost heap is more coherent than Charlie's brain. Acting ability. The poor fellow has been told to look prime ministerial so he poses on the platform as if for a sculptor, chin higher than can be comfortable, eyes staring into the middle distance. Far from being prime ministerial it's impossible to imagine Charlie in charge of the most insignificant department of state.

That brings us round to leadership. Charlie's declared that he's a chairman not a leader. Parties need chairmen. And in point of fact, Charlie makes a very good chairman. The trouble is, parties need a leader too (preferably a non-drivelling one). Whatever Chairman Charlie has had to give the party, he's given it. Two elections have taken everything he's got. He has risen slightly above his level of competence. If this becomes obvious to all, support for his party will collapse like a bad soufflé.

So who might take over? The front-runners - all talented and capable - are lined up for and against The Orange Book. The only candidate that can rise above the division is Ming Campbell - who also has the very great advantage of being too old to run more than once (young cardinals vote for old popes).

How does a nice party get rid of a nice leader in a nice way? Certainly not by a public vote. English embarrassment would keep the fellow in place for a hundred years. Also, his big speech today will go down extremely well (another echo of Iain Duncan Smith).

No, in a move that delights us traditionalists, it will be back to the smoke-filled rooms. A delegation goes to see him - before Christmas, it's always later than we think - to give him a year to arrange a graceful exit. Nothing public, nothing embarrassing, nothing unseemly. Politics at its best. The only thing that's keeping Charlie in his job is the party's anti-smoking policy. But he is the only Liberal Democrat who smokes any more: it's suicidal, in more ways than one.