The Guardian's leader column today carries a fairly devastating attack on Ming Campbell's leadership of the libDems. It also speculates on whether the LibDems might be morally (rather than legally) obliged to pay back the £2.4 million donation from Michael Brown. Here's the editorial in full...
Labour is bankrupt, barren and banal," said Sir Menzies Campbell on Friday - bold words from a man who was himself in the middle of delivering one of the more platitudinous political speeches of recent months. Billed as Sir Menzies' first major foray into domestic policy since the local elections, it spluttered on to the news on the back of a promise to cut parole for serious criminals and some cod-rightwingery about denying sex offenders the vote, but it delivered neither a coherent picture of the sort of liberalism Sir Menzies wants to develop, nor much new thinking. As piece of political positioning it was justifiable, responding to the (unfair) charge that the party cares more about the interests of those who commit crime than the people who suffer from it. But it was much too defensive as an opening foray, retreating from distinctive positions Liberal Democrats have taken in the past. One passage ran close to endorsing the government's policy of control orders. This lack of anything much to say, rather than his cheek-reddening performances at prime minister's questions, which he will surely overcome, is Sir Menzies' problem at the moment. Inside the party, he is turning out to be a good caretaker, tidying up the campaigns department, building links between the leader's office and MPs, and bringing on a new generation of able frontbench MPs. But he is proving much weaker as the public face of liberalism. His team point out, fairly enough, that Sir Menzies is still new to the job, establishing his team of advisers and waiting for policy commissions to report. They say that his slow start can be put down in part to his tricky inheritance from Charles Kennedy and they promise more action before the summer, including a new look at taxation and a personal manifesto, leading up to a bigger debate at the party's autumn conference. This will involve an assertion of social as well as economic liberalism. But neither was much on show in Friday's speech.
Liberal Democrats are not a carnivorous bunch and do not like chewing up their leaders. The rebellion against Charles Kennedy was an exception. But Sir Menzies does not look like a man who is enjoying his job, which is both difficult and (unlike David Cameron's) unpaid. The belief is growing that he will not want to stay on until the next election. His allies deny this absolutely, pointing to the temptation of office in a possible hung parliament, but even the suspicion that Sir Menzies is not in the game for the long term will damage him.
There will be no moment of crisis, unless Mr Kennedy's ill-advised decision to take a £2.4m donation during the last election, comes to haunt his successor. Liberal Democrats insist that proper checks were made and that the money was taken fairly. But the donor, Michael Brown, now faces serious claims from his bankers, HSBC, and a police investigation. Spanish authorities have chased his assets in Majorca. A point may come where the party faces a moral, if not a legal, obligation to return the money. But Sir Menzies' more imminent political problem is the sense that the game is running away from him, as the nation shapes up to make a straight choice between Gordon Brown and David Cameron. This is the moment for him to intrude. The four-point drop in Lib-Dem support in the latest Guardian poll may be just typical political turbulence: the local elections were not quite as bad as painted and the party's win in the Fife byelection may be a sign of success to come in next year's Scottish and Welsh elections. But Labour's troubles seem to be sending support sliding into Tory laps. A declining Liberal Democrat party is just what Mr Cameron needs: he cannot win a majority without it. The fightback requires originality, intelligence and a degree of bravery. None of these were prominent in Sir Menzies' speech on home affairs. It is to be hoped that he knows it.
Click HERE to see the comments of Guardian readers on this. They make for some interesting reading!