Sunday, December 18, 2005


Lib Dem Dilemma

By the Bernard Ingham criterion I began with in my last posting, Charles Kennedy must be a worried man. The Observer today carries a report that Paul Marsden, former Labour MP for my home town of Shewsbury who defected to the Lib Dems, has claimed he joined the leader of his new party in an extended whisky drinking session. This occurred when Marsden effected his transfer and after it Charlie allegedly spent a sozzled night on the office sofa. In addition the press seems to have dubbed him 'Dead Man Walking'. Apart from being premature, such approaches are not especially helpful or interesting: two recent observations by commentators, by contrast, struck me as both.

First Peter Kelner on Breakfast television yesterday put his finger on Kennedy's problem. He is the ideal leader for the 'safety valve' party whereby Lib Dems provide an alternative. Charles is relaxed, friendly and reassuring: not like those agressive professional politicians who lead the main contending groups. But this is not enough for a party which won 62 MPs and six million votes last May. A large wedge of the party's MPs and membership see ownership of Downing St as their proper prize. They want to sup at the 'Top Table' says Kelner and for this goal, Kennedy does not seem to be the appropriate leader. The nation seems to agree. The Observer ICM poll today shows only 13% think Kennedy would make the best Prime Minister; admittedly no different from thoise during last May's election but scarcely credible Top Table ratings.

Second, Andrew Rawnsley points out in today's Observer that there are two factions among Lib Dem expanded bunch of MPs; a group of 'tax and spend' public sector supporters who could easily be sitting on the Labour benches and another increasingly 'market forces' faction which could easily sit with the Conservative. Ashdown was able to disguise this (in his time not so pronounced) tendency by sheer force of personality but Charles- who recently expressed his leadership role as being more that of a 'chairman'- is conspicuously not able to ride both horses at once.

Kennedy, despite being the most successful leader his party has had in terms of gains, is being crushed between these two factions. He would love to lead the party into the next election when a hung parliament seems increasingly possible and the Lib Dems are likely to be in a controlling position. But it seems the skids are already under him. A pertinent question is 'who would do the job better?' Simon Hughes springs to mind- but he has his enemies; Campbell is a credible Cabinet member or even Prime Minister- but he is too old; Mark Oaten is bright and young- but is too inexperienced. As I suggested in an earlier post, a short term leadership spell from Ming Campbell would appear to be the answer; his inability warmly to endorse Kennedy suggests he thinks this way too. The arrival of a Blair clone as Conservative leader seems to have sent out a call in the Lib Dems for a similar transforming tyro. It is the party's problem that no such clone appears to be sitting on its benches at present.

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