We have just asked Sir Menzies Campbell when he last poked someone. The face of the Liberal Democrat leader registers utter astonishment, a flush of alarm then a hint of anger. Poking is, we hurriedly assure him, a technical term, from Facebook, which he was the first party leader to sign up to. “Ah. I was encouraged to do that . . . I’ve got someone who monitors it for me because there are quite a lot of other things going on,” he says. Indeed there are.
In the year and a half since Sir Menzies became leader, his party’s ratings have remained low, leading to mutterings about whether he is too old for the new generation of voters. There are even suggestions that his predecessor, Charles Kennedy, with his Have I Got News For You popular appeal, might make a comeback. Sir Menzies is expected to face a rough ride at the party’s annual conference next weekend. You cannot accuse Sir Menzies, or at least his aides, of failing to recognise the problem. On the table between us lies a briefing sheet for the barrister, Olympic athlete, cancer survivor and the only senior MP to have read Iraq right, from the start.
“You should assume,” the adviser wrote, “that Alice and Helen are coming into the room expecting to find someone who is old, tired and lacking in the vision that leadership requires. For the interview you need to bear this in mind by being positive, purposeful and by being relaxed when they ask personal questions.” All senior politicians get memos like this before interviews; few are unguarded enough to leave them in view...