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.Reuse content