Leading article: A new leader and the need to smarten up his party


Sir Menzies Campbell may have been an early favourite to win the Liberal Democrat leadership election, but his route to power was less comfortable than many of his supporters anticipated. In what became a lively contest, Sir Menzies was pushed hard by both his rivals. Simon Hughes justified his reputation as a formidable public speaker and campaigner. And the runner-up, Chris Huhne, deserves credit for first seizing the opportunity to run when others hesitated and then presenting fresh thinking during the contest. His emergence on the national political scene not only helps his own prospects but boosts the credibility of his party.

But in the end, Sir Menzies won by a sizeable margin, with 57 per cent of the vote, and on a turnout substantially higher than the last leadership contest in 1999. This translates into a clear mandate. Which is just as well, because Sir Menzies faces a daunting challenge. The Liberal Democrats have staged a recovery in the opinion polls of late, but are still some way off their peak last summer. The party's surprise victory in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election last month was a morale boost, but it would be easy to get carried away with the result.

These should be the best of times for the party, with 63 MPs, a new leader and an illiberal government, but politics is a fast-moving game. Going into the next election, Sir Menzies will be facing a telegenic Tory leader in David Cameron and, most likely, an immensely skilful politician in Gordon Brown. So what should he do?

First and foremost, Sir Menzies urgently needs to create a new air of professionalism about the party. The impression of disarray and amateurishness that has bedevilled the Liberal Democrats in recent months must be banished. All those skills that make the party such a formidable force on the ground must focus on improving its national organisation. He must also establish where the party stands in policy terms. Opportunism is no longer enough when the centre ground is so crowded. The tactic of emphasising different aspects of the Liberal Democrat manifesto in different parts of the country should be brought to an end.

Sir Menzies will need to make the most of his personal strengths. He has a fine record of opposing the war on Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and all the noxious aspects of the "war on terror". His statesmanlike demeanour ought to appeal to instinctive Tory voters. But his age is, sadly, also a factor, especially after such a faltering performance in the leadership campaign, and he will have to work hard to prove he is not simply a caretaker leader while allowing younger talents to shine through. This will be a tricky balancing act.

Sir Menzies must also improve his leadership skills. Delegation and teamwork are not his forte. And he was not noticeably quick to defend his former leader and two rival candidates when they became embroiled in personal difficulties. He also needs to sharpen his act on domestic policy where, compared to his mastery of foreign affairs, he has been unconvincing. It is not encouraging that one of his first pledges yesterday was to continue his party's opposition to the Government's Education Bill. This suggests that he is happy to maintain his party's cosy relationship with public service providers, rather than consumers.

The political convergence on the centre ground could easily result in the third party being squeezed. The task for Sir Menzies is to convert this threat into an opportunity. The Liberal Democrats must cultivate a distinctive voice on civil liberties, international law, Europe, the environment and the devolution of power. Sir Menzies has passed his first test by convincing his fellow Liberal Democrats that his is up to the job. Now he must convince the country.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most