Leading article: Cold winds are swirling around the third party


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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Call Handler

£14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a Sales Ca...

Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

£14560 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique pers...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

Time for Mad Men to check out the vloggers

Danny Rogers
Rachel Reeves is the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary  

What are we voting for? No one knows

Stefano Hatfield
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor