Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Ming went because we didn't know what to do next

The minute my mobile phone went off and I heard the news that Ming Campbell was standing down I immediately had a sense of dejà vu.

We have been through this process all too recently. Last time around, our leader had been clinging on to power and MPs were paralysed with guilt and nervousness over wielding the knife. But this time, things are different.I don't sense any great queue of MPs lining up to stab Ming Campbell in the back. He is more a casualty of the party not knowing quite what to do next and not being sure how to handle the squeeze we are currently facing.



It is typical of Ming that he chose to bring this situation to a head before others forced him into that position. It is only right that a man of such integrity has done things on his own terms.



Let's remember, Ming Campbell has been leader during a very difficult time in the party's history. And I know I didn't help matters myself. Ming has done some really important work in stabilising and rebuilding the party, overseeing a strong package of policies and improving the credibility of the party.



Just a few weeks ago, Westminster was in the grip of serious election fever; Ming was far from alone in psyching himself up for an autumn election. Once this prospect had passed, Ming was faced with a choice. He and Elspeth will have talked this over and discussed whether the prospect of sustaining the level of day-to-day commitment required to be party leader for another 18 months was a challenge which they were up for. When it came to it, they decided they just didn't want to face such a relentless task for that long.



Blaming the party's current problems on Ming Campbell's leadership is unfair and over-simplistic. It is sloppy and lazy to cite Ming's age and perceived lack of charisma as solely responsible for the party languishing on 11 per cent in the polls. If we think that all our problems will be solved by getting in a younger model, with more hair, who looks good on TV, then we have another think coming.



The truth is, a third party often faces a tough time when Labour and the Conservatives are doing well. Brown and Cameron's stubborn occupation of the centre ground has squeezed us out of the news agenda. This is hurting the party at the moment. We must now take this opportunity to get the Liberal Democrats back on the agenda. To do this, we first need to address our lack of a clear narrative over what liberalism means. Sadly, the very word alone is still too weak in its associations and meanings. I have long felt that we need to be clearer about what Liberalism means in the 21st century.



One of the ways to define what we mean by liberalism is to identify how it could work within the context of a hung parliament. We need to open up a genuine debate over whether Labour or the Conservatives more closely share our liberal values. We should not necessarily assume that any deal in the event of a hung parliament will be all about proportional representation.



Instead, we should see this situation as an opportunity to make it very clear what we stand for, by setting out our position strongly on key issues such as ID cards. Before we make policies to go on focus leaflets or in our manifesto, we need to be clear what it means to be liberal and how this affects people in their daily lives.



The party will also need to be prepared to take risks. I think we should start by being prepared to talk openly about the possibility of a hung parliament and the fact that, with the polls being so close, we could well be kingmakers at the next election. We need to be clear that this is a positive thing and be open about our position. We should state now that, in the event of a hung parliament, we would be prepared to work with the party which has the largest number of seats, regardless of whether Labour or the Conservatives.



It is a shame that things have happened this way. But now that we are to have a leadership contest, we have two clear potential candidates in Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. I personally hope Nick runs. If he does, I will be supporting him. Nick has done a very good job as home affairs spokesman. Nick's skilful and thoughtful handling of this tricky portfolio demonstrates that he has the qualities needed to take the party forward as leader.



For Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and anyone else who throws their hat into the ring, the next few weeks will not be easy; there will be many sleepless nights and rumours will be flying around.



Whoever wins will have a tough time ahead. But they can take comfort from the fact that the third party in British politics is robust and is likely to rise again.



The writer is MP for Winchester and was a candidate in the last party leadership election



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