Thursday, July 20, 2006


Answering the Question

Ming Campbell was the subject of an unsympathetic piece on Newsnight last night, and Lib Dem bloggers are divided on how well he performed. Excuse me for not falling over with surprise at either of these facts. My view is that he was right to appear on it, and handled it pretty well. His biggest selling point was that he actually answered the questions, clearly and with substance. It won’t solve all his problems overnight, but to people fed up with Mr Blair’s shiftiness it may turn out to be a better answer than more evasions from another slick charmer.

Rob Fenwick goes for the jugular with his question, ‘Is Ming Campbell the Liberal Democrats’ IDS?’ ‘No,’ is the answer, but the fact that it’s become the media question of choice is obviously dangerous territory for the party and needs an answer rather than blanket assertions of confidence (not least because Rob looks at some of Ming’s strong points, too). Well, let me cut straight to the jugular too. Is Ming as damaged as IDS was, and would dumping and replacing him leave the Liberal Democrats in a stronger position? Absolutely not, to both. Dumping and replacing another Leader would make us an even bigger laughing-stock than the Tories were (and they were), with absolutely no obvious ‘safe pair of hands’ ready to take over – if you think Ming’s a problem now, remember that he was ‘the answer’ for those getting rid of Charles, so I’d be exceptionally wary of asking the question a second time. A new Leader would not be the answer, but fuel for the fire.

The ‘IDS’ tag is an easy taunt to fling from a media who want to make another Leader ‘the story’, but it has far less to go on than with the original. Ming’s far more organised and effective at the helm, and – whether you think this is a good or a bad thing – can’t be accused merely of telling the party’s core supporters exactly what they expect to hear all the time. He has nothing like the problem among his MPs that Mr Duncan Smith had, though (even in hindsight) Simon Hughes participating in a self-fulfilling prophecy wasn’t being prescient, merely giving the media exactly the quote they wanted in order to fuel a media-spun story, and he shouldn’t have been so daft. Even presentationally, well, few of Ming’s months as Leader so far have been among his best, but do you remember how bad Iain Duncan Smith actually was? If I were to apply a critical comparison in those terms, I’d say he’s our Michael Howard: he needs to trade on being old and aggressive as ‘experienced’ and ‘a fighter to be feared,’ because both of them are about as cuddly as rattlesnakes.

I think Ming was right to go on Newsnight. Yes, he might have got more votes sitting on a morning sofa talking about recipes with Elspeth, but once a Leader under fire disappears into the bunker and everyone reports he’s too scared to come out again, well, he may as well haul the coffin lid on top and hold it down. Besides, Ming is never going to be more lovable on a sofa than that ‘nice’ ‘young’ Mr Cameron in his open-necked shirt. Ming’s best hope is to be serious and trustworthy and to stake out real answers on issues like the environment, even if some people don’t like them. He did that.

He stood up to the questions pretty well, though I’m a little alarmed at how nervous he often seems on starting an answer. I’ve done a small number of TV interviews, and I know they’ve always frightened me; the way I got over it was to up the voice level and keep going, talking over someone if necessary because I knew I’d be all right once I got into full flow and could concentrate on what I was saying rather than whether or not I’d get to say it (Kiron Reid once told me off for bullying John Sopel in an interview where I was determined to get my point across in just that way). With Ming’s infinitely superior experience and polish, it was worrying that I recognised exactly the same signs, and that he’s tended to look so much less assured since becoming Leader.

On the more impressive side, he’ll have got respect from viewers for overruling Martha Kearney’s constant attempts to build up a narrative without giving him a say by simply cutting in with, “If I may answer the question,” then actually doing so. One of Mr Cameron’s whingeing ways is to moan that the questioner is being terribly unfair not to let him waffle on for as long as he likes without substance, and Ming’s approach was entirely different. I suspect Mr Cameron’s answer to a difficult question – running scared of taking any position, he whines ‘Pity me,’ followed by trying to filibuster to the end of the interview – will look even more lightweight than usual if Ming ever gets to be put side by side with him. Ming will not be as charming, but increasingly his USP appears to be that he answers the question. After a decade of Mr Blair, that may be a bigger ‘battle asset’ than oozing charm.

Charles Kennedy has a different type of charm, more homely and less slick (alternatively, less professional), and he might have got the audience on his side; but if the implicit criticism is ‘You’re not up to the job,’ I suspect that (as Paul Walter has it) showing you are indeed up to it on points of substance is probably more important than a warm, fuzzy feeling. Ming is not as lovable as Charles. Well, nobody who voted for him thought he was; but then, neither of the other two candidates on offer had that gift either. Yes, there were points when I winced at him talking women down, which didn’t look nice, but don’t underestimate the two gifts Ming displayed last night: the ability to answer the question fully and with substance, in an age where politicians are reviled for ‘never answering the bloody question’; and the ability to give answers succinctly. Charles would usually have done the first very well, but had a tendency to waffle in interviews (I know I’m a fine one to talk). So, each get two out of three on approachability, substance and brevity.

The other question about Charles was partly answered by Ming when he pointed out the party is doing far better under him than the early stage under Charles, and did better under Charles than in the early stage under Paddy. I joined the Liberal Democrats immediately after merger in 1988, and I can remember my sighs of relief if I’d pick up my Dad’s Observer and that week’s opinion poll put us above 5%, or more than a couple of points clear of the Owenite SDP. Ming could also have given a more personal and less flattering answer about his predecessors; if you think twice as many people wanting Charles as wanting Ming is a bad poll result, I suspect it wasn’t until about 1990 that polls stopped saying people put Paddy a long way behind David Owen. It’s very rare for any incoming Leader to get immediate poll support, and that’s almost entirely down to the media giving them constant, glowing reports: I can think of just two, and you know which two they are. One of them is in the process of ending unhappily. The other’s not as talented.


Thanks for including the link. My spirits have been uplifted by your, as usual, thorough, balanced and perceptive commentary.
I agree with your analysis. I didn't vote for Ming, and it does concern me a little that he seems so unsure of himself, but as you point out, comparatively speaking he is in a reasonable position with former leaders at this stage. It's not unlikely that giving serious, thoughful answers to questions will resonate better with the general public, even though the media prefer smarm or razzmatazz.
That last paragraph is very important. I remember those days well!
Thanks for this, Alex. As usual, I agree.

But you can scarcely complain about me calling you 'sensible' if you then go and produce such a well-reasoned post ;-)
Thanks, all.

I don't think the 'serious answers' are likely to pay off instantly, but they're not a bad medium-term bet. As ever, I wish we were in an election campaign where everything was wall-to-wall three-way debates.

And, Stephen: curses, foiled again! I refer you to my post on The Cybernauts ;-)

Thanks for the flattering link, though.
Well done, Stephen, on actually doing the legwork and researching old polls rather than relying on memory as I did.

Anyone who'd like to see the set of figures for Charles taking over from Paddy, complete with a quote from one of the best episodes of The West Wing, should visit this entry on Stephen's blog.
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