So far this blog has avoided anything more than tangential references to the leadership election, although particularly attentive readers might have spotted my name in the list of Ming supporters on the Campbell campaign website.
I imagine most readers who reach this site will already have come across the three extended essays (shortly to be published in paperback as part of a commemorative three-volume box set?) by Alex Wilcock at Love and Liberty. That is the post to read for those still making their minds up. For the closest approximation to my own views see Joe Otten’s posting in support of Ming.
From my own partisan but nonetheless fairly detached vantage point, I offer my own thoughts on the leadership election. So much has been written in Lib Dem blogland on this, that I apologise in advance if what follows includes some unintentional plagiarism.
First, I can’t help feeling that the members are missing out through the absence of Nick Clegg’s name from the ballot paper. I am not the first person to say this, and others who are now backing Huhne have hinted at the view that while Huhne has shown guts and leadership, Clegg has chickened out. For me, it’s quite understandable that someone who has just been elected to parliament feels that they need to learn the ropes and risk being torn apart if they go too fast too soon. But given that Huhne has stood after a few months in Parliament I would have preferred to have had the choice of Clegg as well. I would almost certainly have voted for him.
On to the actual candidates. Simon at his best is great at the inspirational speech that renews our enthusiasm and reminds us of why we fight for the Liberal cause. But he is not really a party leader and I have not seriously considered supporting him this time. It isn’t the disorganisation (a quality on which I can empathise with him) or the vicarish earnestness. I do think, however, that his failure to make an impact in the London mayoral contest was a significant failure.
There are a couple of interrelated problems with Simon. First, although he is a star platform orator, Simon achieves his inspirational effect by speaking in uplifting generalities and dealing with safe issues that his hearers will agree on. It is a quality he shares with the late (and much missed) Conrad Russell. Simon is altogether less convincing when being interrogated on the detail of difficult issues. One of his most annoying habits is behaving as though the point of any interview is for him and his interlocutor to find common ground and that each will assume the best of one another. This is what led to faux pas like the notorious Radio 4 phone-in programme during the 1992 general election campaign. In a way the reasons why Simon won’t do as leader are entirely to his credit as a human being – but nonetheless, he won’t do!
Huhne is a different matter altogether. At various points during the campaign I have had to remind myself of the reasons I am not supporting him. There is much in his message that is appealing, particularly on localism and the environment. He is the intellectual heavyweight among the three contenders. And when I see listed among his supporters many Liberal Democrats with whom I most closely agree about policy and philosophy, I begin to feel tempted.
Yet I am not going to support Huhne. The reasons why were perhaps best summed up by his performance on Question Time last week. As Margot Asquith said of F.E. Smith ‘very clever but sometimes his brains go to his head’. I am reminded that Clinton, who was perhaps the brightest and best-educated of American presidents, was clever enough to realise that looking too clever is rather dumb if you are hoping to have popular appeal. Chris does not appear to have learned this lesson. Of course all this may be a masterclass in triangulation where Huhne, having wowed the Lib Dem activists with brilliant mind, once elected starts wearing dark glasses and playing the saxophone to show his common touch. As things stand, I can see that Huhne will have a great appeal to thinking Lib Dem activists. Unfortunately, most of the electorate don’t fall into this category. I was also concerned that he was the most gung-ho of the leadership contenders for a smoking ban, denying that it posed a dilemma for Liberals. I have spent years bemoaning the contrast between Lib Dems’ commitment to liberty in the abstract but enthusiasm for banning things. Huhne strikes me as suspect on this. And, lastly, I was out of sympathy with Huhne’s contribution to the Orange Book, which struck me as excessively enthusiastic for international military intervention in the world’s trouble spots.
Which brings us on to Ming. I am not an uncritical fan – far from it. I disagreed with him profoundly on cosying up to Labour, and fear that he pays lip-service to localism and to the party’s local government base. However, he gets my vote for a number of reasons. He is a good liberal – sound on civil liberties and the core liberal issues, and the least collectivist of the three candidates. The policy direction he sets out shows that he has a wider political worldview than just foreign affairs and that he is willing to embrace the ideas put forward by some of the younger members of the parliamentary party.
He comes across as an engaging personality who speaks with authority, but also with a nice sense of humour that will go down better with non-committed voters than would Huhne. I have also heard Campbell speak in the past about the need for Liberals to be ‘cavaliers’ rather than ‘roundheads’ and that appeals to me too. I realise that the ‘banners’ versus ‘permissives’ debate is fairly peripheral, but it is important to me and Campbell seems more on my side in this than Huhne.
So Campbell it is then. Of course in any contest such as this, one’s choice will end up being on balance rather than a matter of fundamentally disagreeing with the candidates one is not voting for. For me Hughes has an engaging personality but not the intellectual gravitas to be leader. With Huhne it is the other way round. Campbell has both. That is why I will be voting for him.