Leading article: Some early questions of leadership for Sir Menzies

Share

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, is an indirect beneficiary of the storms erupting around Tony Blair. Sir Menzies performed poorly again at Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday, but it was Mr Blair's unusually lacklustre responses that dominated subsequent reports. In less turbulent times for the Government, the media attention would have focused on the hesitant and ineffective interventions of the Liberal Democrats' new leader. Sir Menzies' unimpressive parliamentary performances coincide with patchy local election results and mediocre opinion poll ratings for his party. Not surprisingly, there are mutterings of discontent already among senior Liberal Democrats rather than any euphoric sense of a new leader enjoying a political honeymoon.

These are early days, of course, and it would be premature to make any decisive judgement on Sir Menzies. Behind the scenes, senior MPs report that their new leader is bringing much needed order to what had become a chaotic organisation. He has also assembled a formidable parliamentary front bench that is working together effectively as a team. The party's policy review is being conducted with rigour and a sense of purpose. These are important changes, made from the context of underestimated disarray.

But organisational improvements pay few electoral dividends in the short term. Voters pay attention to the public arena - and in this respect Sir Menzies is falling short. Prime Minister's Questions matters. Effective interventions are broadcast on television news bulletins. MPs' spirits are lifted when their leader performs well. But with Mr Blair and his team on the ropes, Sir Menzies has failed to land any punches. More important, he has not made the most of his party's distinctive agenda. On the environment, the energetic David Cameron commands greater attention, despite this being traditionally strong terrain for Liberal Democrats. Their shelves creak with detailed policies addressing environmental issues, which no doubt will be refreshed in the current policy review. In contrast, Mr Cameron's attempts to paint the Tories green are often based on superficial stunts rather than genuine policies. But there is no point in having policies if voters are unaware of them.

The Liberal Democrats are also the party most closely associated with the protection of civil liberties at a time when their erosion is a national talking point. They are in a position to lead the debate, but recently it is the media and the judiciary that have led opposition to the Government's increasingly authoritarian tendencies. In addition, the post-war failures in Iraq still loom large over the domestic political agenda. This is not a time for the Liberal Democrats to go quiet on Iraq.

As the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, Sir Menzies gave the party authority and gravitas during the war and its tragic aftermath. Liberal Democrats hope that, over time, his un-spun integrity as leader will contrast well with the youthful David Cameron and the long-serving Gordon Brown. Next month, Sir Menzies plans a big speech to outline his strategy for the years ahead. He needs to do more than convey reassuring competence; he must reach out to voters who will soon have the choice of a newly led Labour Party and the new-look Tories. He must offer them a vision, and persuade them he has the energy to lead our third party.

It is in the early days of a leadership that impressions are formed. Sir Menzies has moved quickly to calm frayed nerves at the top of his battered party. Now he must address the growing concerns over his ability to make an impact in a modern media age. If he fails to do so, more persistent questions will be asked about whether the Liberal Democrats have chosen the right leader.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pricing Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: low pay, E and non-E online, and the pointlessness of chess

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: There's a crackle in the Brum air

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style