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
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Engineer-(Support, ITIL, Software Vendor)

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Engineer-(Support, S...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Turkey and Qatar must step up the fight against Isis

Benedict Greening
 

Should America pay Isis ransom money to free hostages like James Foley?

Kim Sengupta
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home