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.

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