For once I may get my blog post in within hours rather than days or weeks of the breaking news, although I see that are plenty of Lib Dem bloggers have beaten me to it.
The general tenor of comments from Lib Dems has been that this was inevitable. Apparently, however honourable, liberal and intelligent Ming may be, his leadership has not connected with the public and he just had to go.
It isn’t clear at this stage how far this was his personal choice and how far it reflected the groundswell of opinion among Westminster village Lib Dems or even party activists. It’s done now, the decision has been made and clearly can’t be reversed. But for what it’s worth, I think Ming was wrong to resign and that those who have called for him to go have tendered unwise advice.
With the sole exception of Charles Kennedy, every post-war Liberal (or Lib Dem) leader has struggled in their first couple of years in charge and has failed to increase the party’s number of MP at their first election as leader. Most have presided over a net loss of seats. One reason why Kennedy bucked the trend might have been because he was already a sort of celebrity MP, but the main one was that in 2001 the Tories (our main rivals for Parliamentary seats) were very unpopular and appeared to have a death wish.
Which brings me to the key point. Liberal Democrat advances tend to come when one or both of the other parties is one or more of unpopular, extreme and disunited. Tory weakness normally gives us a particular high. At a time when both the main parties are making a dash for the political centre, the Tories have a new leader who at least appears human (unlike the previous three) and Labour have a new prime minister who has until recently been enjoying a honeymoon period, things are inevitably going to be difficult. Both parties are trying to invade the other’s territory and are trampling over ours too.
So, progress during this parliament is likely to be hard-won and at times we have to dig in and avoid being driven back. Any leader is going to find it hard going. Particularly so as the last few weeks have been a set piece battle between Labour and the Tories. At a time like this a leader like Ming, who has experience and good political judgement, was what we needed. But the added advantage was that if we did well at the next election, he could take the plaudits and hand on the baton, if did badly he could bow out at what would seem the natural end to a political career. Whichever way, he would not be unduly damaged.
Instead, the pressure will be on a new leader to produce a dramatic turn-around, even though he or she will have the same problem as Ming in having to struggle for media attention and face tough questioning when they do get coverage. If they don’t produce a dramatic rise in our poll ratings, or increase the number of Lib Dem MPs at the next election, they too will face media stories about whether they will resign, the whole saga starts over again and a promising career will be brought to a crashing halt.
In short, the current political climate is going to be hard for us, regardless of who the leader is and for reasons we can’t control. I was grateful that Ming had taken on this difficult assignment, which he was carrying out with dignity, and thereby protecting the next leader, Clegg, Huhne, Davey or whoever, so that they could take over at a point when the political landscape might open up for us again. This really was not the moment to change leaders.