Thursday, February 09, 2006


Let Ming Be Ming

Ming Campbell for Leader? Well, in many ways he’s the most presentable candidate, the sort of Prime Minister your Grandad might have trusted, and a gut Liberal on a lot of issues; I even agree with the lectures he’s been making to the party in the past few years about being too keen to ban everything. The press have been saying how good he is for years, making him probably still best-placed to swiftly establish Lib Dem ‘credibility’. He also has the rare ability to sound righteous without sounding merely self-important. So what’s my problem with him? ‘Charles Kennedy’, in two words.

My other half has been convinced throughout that Ming was up to his neck in plots to remove Charles. Who had motive, who had opportunity, who benefits and who does all the circumstantial evidence point to? Hmm. I won't be voting him down just as a result, but I see the point.

I notice the YouGov poll today rates Ming highest on honesty, which makes me unimpressed at the nous of my fellow Lib Dem members. They seem to be damning the painfully honest Simon Hughes for dithering about his sexuality; to me, the question of honesty in this campaign is for Ming. I simply don’t believe his very late, very lacklustre protestations that he wasn’t behind the downfall of his predecessor. Yes, I was unhappy about how it happened, but I have slightly more respect for those who are at least honest about it and made the case that it was necessary. Those who, by an uncanny coincidence, almost unanimously lined up to back Ming. The only notable exception is Chris Huhne, who appears to be getting support for the honesty of at least stabbing Charles in the front, while Ming looks like a grubby schemer who wanted rid of Charles but still won’t admit it.

Remember the way Ming kept so silent while every briefing said he wanted Charles and the horse he rode in on out of town? Remember the way that immediately after Charles’s statement, News 24 broadcast the unedifying spectacle of a dozen MPs who’d signed the deadly letter turning up to swear undying loyalty to the Emperor Ming, followed swiftly by Ming launching his leadership bid with indecent haste, just an hour after Charles resigned (and several days before anyone else)? Gosh, I wonder who they could all have been plotting with. I’m not saying Ming unquestionably has blood all over his hands, but if this was a whodunnit every reader would be jumping up and down crying, “It was him! It was HIM!” It makes it near-impossible not to believe there was an orchestrated plot to a) bring Charles down and b) scare off any other challengers with a rush to crown Ming, attempting to bypass the members entirely. If there wasn’t a contest, he wouldn't have had to answer any impertinent questions. I can’t help feeling much of the situation we’re in is because he’s an ambitious man who was gagging for another chance; of course he should have stood when Paddy went, but he knew no-one would vote for him over Charles and bottled it, and never forgave Charles for having the guts to stand. As one of his stated reasons for not standing in 1999 was that it would be too tiring, I do wonder if he has the stamina to do the job now he’s seven years older – and it would be ironic if we replaced a Leader known for his ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ with another Leader who has days when he’s not up to it but who’s less appealing than Charles when he’s ‘good’.

I don’t intend to make the last leader my only guide to how to vote on the next. But I remember discussing him with Richard later on the day that Charles went, and joking that ‘he’s probably the most competent candidate, but also the most evil’. After a few weeks of him as Acting Leader, I’ll not claim that he’s the most competent. I’m still astounded that someone with his experience could lack the most basic political nous in making his Prime Minister’s Question Time blunder about temporary headteachers. Admittedly David drop-every-policy-and-pretend-I’m-a-Liberal Cameron calling Mr Blair a flip-flopper yesterday was far more stupid, but Mr Cameron is a vacuous opportunist who’s only drifted on top with the support of media hot air. What’s Ming’s excuse? And since then, of course, he's played it safe and simply been ignored.

I was expecting by this stage of the campaign to be deciding whether I could go for a competent patrician who I don’t especially like but comes over well and won’t cock it up, so I can’t understand how he’s had so many disasters. Just about the only thing I’ve seen of Ming that’s come over well was his second campaign launch, surrounded by masses of people and speaking well, but even that made me think, “Hmm, he only needs a second launch because he did his first in such a rush,” and “I’d rather have Jo Swinson.” Ming seems to be scared of coming across as the scary – I’m sorry, I mean ‘respected’ – and aloof Ming that everyone’s impressed by, and trying to be someone else. My eyebrows raised when I first heard his newly-discovered set of priorities as Leader: “Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be… Simon Hughes!” On Any Questions with Simon and Chris, I thought he came across astoundingly poorly, probably the least impressive I’ve ever heard him, and that time because he was trying to be like Charles; warm and approachable. Ming is our ‘Michael Howard’ candidate. He’s feared, not loved, and like Michael Howard his attempts to sound warm and approachable are rather less successful than those of a boa constrictor. I defy anyone who heard his Uriah Heep act on the first question (along the lines of ‘I’m so humble, I hate to put myself forward’) followed by the whiplash of arrogant scoffing that “I don’t take orders from Simon Hughes” not to have squirmed. It was clear which was the real Ming.

I served on the Federal Policy Committee for ten years, and few MPs treated it with such disdain as Ming on his rare appearances. He was impressive, knew his stuff, was hugely self-assured and even had a sense of humour, but had next to zero interest in other people’s views. If there’s one issue where I don’t see him as a gut Liberal, it’s party democracy. His attempt to engineer a coup – I’m sorry, coronation – is just a part of that. It’s noticeable that he’s speaking up far less than the other candidates. With so many thrusting, ambitious people supporting him and seemingly doing most of the speaking out for his campaign, I’ve started wondering where Ming is, and why; is it because he’s too grand to make his own case, or because other people are telling him what to do?

It’s a cliché that Leaders gradually retreat into their own bunkers, but it’s… innovative to spend your leadership campaign already inside one and let your ‘young captains’ fight all the battles. The trouble is, they’re doing it very badly. Whoever attacked Chris for not standing by his support for Ming – and in doing so supplied proof that Ming’s campaign was plotting to replace Charles back last Autumn – wants their head examined. After assassinating Charles, too few of them have said they’ll serve under whichever leader the party picks, raising the spectre that they might do it all over again if the membership gets it ‘wrong’. James Graham is crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger for Chris, but still compulsively readable and asks very penetrating questions. Nick Clegg never managed to answer those James put about internal democracy. Nick’s piece in the Guardian on Tuesday attacking Chris and Simon was only the latest of hugely unwise and nasty-seeming public gaffes. I’ve seen Nick on policy working groups and in public. I like him. He’s personable, talented and shares with Simon a naïve habit of saying things in public without engaging his brain first. I’ve heard him deny that he’s interested in being leader. And I have three pieces of advice for what Nick should say next: “First, Ming is fantastic and I have no doubt he’ll be a great Leader. Second, if he’s not elected, of course I’ll be happy to serve under either of the other candidates, who while not my first choice are also excellent. And third, er, that’s it.” Nick, dear, tape your mouth closed until March and stop making Ming look like you’ve got his pet rabbit held hostage. The same goes for the rest of them. I remember a dreadful old Star Trek episode in which some aged leader only appeared for brief statements while his ambitious young deputy made all the real decisions. It turned out the old guy was locked up, drugged and just held as a figurehead. Ming, I’m not interested in a Leader who wants to order the party around on every issue, but I’m vehemently opposed to a figurehead leader who lets someone else order the party around on every issue while you are unable to exercise any control or leadership over them. Tell your backers to stop sounding as if they’re making all the running, and speak for yourself.

So after all that, what would make me likely to support Ming? I’m never going to view him as a soul brother. I’m never going to think he’s a nice guy to chat to. I’m not alone in that. So play to your strengths, Ming: put some stick about. Remind people why you were trusted by the public and terror to the government on Iraq. Stop letting yourself look like a figurehead for a bunch of younger, stronger, more aggressive people, and stop trying to be liked. Sound strong, make yourself feared again. If you’re going to win, it’ll be as Francis Urquhart with a high moral tone, not the man from the Werthers Originals ad.

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Brilliant piece - It has certainly made me think and not too positively about Ming. I have never been too impressed by the number of MPs backing him as I assume that a number of these are those who might wish to throw their hat in the ring in a few years time. I was also a fan of Nick Clegg up until this contest
Thank you, Tony!

I should point out that I'm also working on pieces for the other two, and am just doing them in alphabetical order; each has strengths, but I'm trying to work out in public why I'm finding it difficult to commit to a particular one.

I’ll try and make the next two rather shorter than that monster piece on Ming…! Though I don’t feel the urge to assess the other two candidates’ coteries at the same time, which helps. Ming's coterie is of course a big issue; and as I argued above, not just because 'Young cardinals vote for old popes'.
Great post! Makes me wish I had a blog just so I could link to it. If I did, I'd quote the two sentences about the 'bunker'. They're totally spot on.
I wonder, do those who live by the backstab also die by the backstab?
I don't agree with everything there, but there's certain some cause for thought. Not least:
I remember a dreadful old Star Trek episode in which some aged leader only appeared for brief statements while his ambitious young deputy made all the real decisions. It turned out the old guy was locked up, drugged and just held as a figurehead.

I'm thinking Denis Carey in Timelash.
Thank you, too, chaps. Quote me wherever you like, if preferably with a link.

I'm strangely unsurprised that replies are coming to the first one where I have a go at one of the candidates, rather than the measured 'they're all good but I preferred Charles' earlier on (and no-one has yet groaned at the terrible acronymic pun in one of my headings)...

I thought of Timelash, too, Will, but if I was to draw people's attention to a truly dreadful piece of television I'd rather it was from a series I cared less about exposing the bad bits of (I think the Star Trek was Patterns of Force) :-)
Just to echo the 'excellent post' comments above, and it will no doubt be quoted and linked soon.

Now, engaging my Macchiavelli mode, if you're going to do the same for the other candidates, we may have to arrange a little accident for you after you've written about Simon Hughes, so everyone assumes you don't have a bad word to say about Chris. :)
OK, so you are saying Ming's crimes are:

a) May have had something to do with Kennedy's downfall, which may have been the wrong thing to do, and hasn't admitted it.

b) Nick Clegg is so sure that he is the right choice that he overdoes it a bit.

c) He knows his own mind on policy.

Well if that's the worst that can be said about him he gets my vote.
Thanks - interesting to hear the views of Ming supporters (and also thanks to Nick for deciding not to make me suffer some nasty 'accident', as well as for quoting me on his own blog).

Joe puts across a rather better case for Ming on his own blog, which I'd encourage people to read.

'Valerie', as I'm an undecided voter you might be more persuasive if your profile didn't appear to be a blatant false identity to get around the 'no anonymous comments' barrier... Though it's interesting that, whichever member of the Ming Team you presumably are, I found one of Ming's attributes a plus that you didn't ;-)
Thanks, Valerie; apologies for being a bit snide yesterday. I'm simply wary of long posts that appear to have a particular angle and no attribution - but obviously in your case you're 'real'. Perhaps you might add some personal detail to your profile to tell us all a little more about yourself?

You took my mention of Ming as 'scary' as a bad thing, but I genuinely meant it as an asset. My other half is firmly of the opinion that all successful politicians are either loved or feared: one of Ming's biggest assets is that when he cuts loose on our opponents, they fear him.

Do please keep reading, and keep posting.
Thank you, Mr Jackdaw (another person I'd be interested to see more of than an empty profile, a blank blog and a nom de guerre).

I don't agree that the candidates have "not that many noteworthy strengths" - each of their campaigns put across many strengths, and I summarise them at the top of each of my profiles. They're all very impressive politicians. But each have drawbacks that make me hesitate before endorsing them for Leader, and as no-one else seemed to have taken a careful examination of each of them outside of partisan spin, I decided to share my analysis. None of their supporters have convincingly refuted it so far, though Ming has inspired the most spirited defence.

And I believe I've answered the 'We need a Willie' question in my later post 'Colin, Calls and a Question of Research'!

Oh, and Valerie - I think astrology is bobbins, too. I suppose that'll upset a few more people ;-)
Hello again

Thank you for the 'Stakhanovite' praises; I fear the slowdown in postings through my ill health and my computer's may mean you retract the offer of decorating me with the Star of Lenin. On the other hand, I never expected such an award and won't weep bitter tears at the loss of it ;-)

Well done for putting up the profile - I liked most of your films (and thanks for the plug). I'm intrigued that 'a non-aligned friend' was turned onto the Liberal Democrats by my profiles - gosh! Very glad to hear it. I hope he or she finds something worthwhile in the more philosophical musings I'm putting up today...
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