Leading article: Cold winds are swirling around the third party

Share

If confirmation were needed that politics is a harsh and unforgiving trade, yesterday's resignation of Sir Menzies Campbell as leader of the Liberal Democrats surely provides it. Despite Sir Menzies' reputation as a likeable and respected figure around Westminster, his party decided that his performance as leader was simply unsatisfactory. In the end, he was dispatched even more swiftly than his predecessor, Charles Kennedy.

There had been rumblings of discontent within the Liberal Democrats ever since Sir Menzies took over from Mr Kennedy last March. The expected boost in the party's electoral fortunes never materialised. There was a feeling from the very start that Sir Menzies lacked the charisma and zest to improve the party's fortunes and take its message to a wider political audience, a fear that was intensified by his early, bumbling performances at Prime Minister's Questions.

But what sealed Sir Menzies' fate in the end was simple electoral arithmetic. Labour's bounce in popularity after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister and the more recent fight-back by David Cameron's Conservative Party squeezed Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. According to one poll, the party's popularity was down to 11 per cent, less than half its share of the vote in the 2005 general election. Many Liberal Democrat MPs – including some of their best and brightest talents – would probably have lost their seats if Mr Brown had called a snap election this autumn.

Nor did the fact that Mr Brown failed to fire the starting gun mean anything but a temporary stay of execution for Sir Menzies. The speculation had served to concentrate Liberal Democrat minds on their predicament. They could envisage no improvement in Sir Menzies' performance before 2009, when the election is now likely to be called. Indeed, if the Conservatives continue on their present upward trajectory, the squeeze on the Liberal Democrat is likely to become greater still.

It is a sad way for things to end for Sir Menzies. Had he become leader earlier in his career, things might have turned out very differently. He has been consistently impressive on the issue of Iraq, civil liberties and terrorism, where he has provided a statesmanlike voice of opposition to the Government. But with the departure of Mr Blair, Iraq inevitably declined in importance as a political issue. Sir Menzies never really came up with a compelling narrative to replace it. In the end he gave the impression of being a leader out of step with the frenetic world around him.

The Liberal Democrats were not short of political ideas. Under Sir Menzies' leadership they pioneered the ideas of using higher environmental taxes to offset cuts in other taxes – an approach that has since been adopted by the Conservatives and underlined how far ahead the party was on green issues. But Sir Menzies was unable to assert ownership of these ideas, compounding the frustration of those in his party.

Now thoughts inevitably turn to where the Liberal Democrats go from here. The party is blessed with a talented crop of politicians in Vince Cable, David Laws, Chris Huhne, and the most likely next leader, Nick Clegg. But whoever is chosen is unlikely to get a substantial fillip in the polls; the political conditions in which the third party of British politics finds itself are too unpromising for that. The new leader will be up against a pair of formidable political street fighters in Mr Cameron and Mr Brown, and he or she will struggle just as much as Sir Menzies to be heard amid the fray.

Yesterday was a wretched one in Sir Menzies' distinguished political career. But it was also, inescapably, a bleak day for the Liberal Democrats, which threw a harsh spotlight on the plight of the third party.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Account Manager

£30 - 38k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a digitally focussed Account Man...

Recruitment Genius: Service Advisor - Automotive

£21000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Legal Secretary - Family Law

£21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing professional legal pr...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Java

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This exciting and disruptive co...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Ancient Labour rivalries – Bevan versus Morrison

John Rentoul
Labour leadership hopefuls, from left, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn on the BBC  

If you’re thinking of voting for Jeremy Corbyn, here are my promises to you

Andy Burnham
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935