Rocky path for Sir Ming unless fortunes

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Instead of just a Labour leadership (non) contest, we should now be in the early days of a general election campaign, according to Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Instead of just a Labour leadership (non) contest, we should now be in the early days of a general election campaign, according to Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell.

His response to Tony Blair's resignation announcement was to table a parliamentary motion calling for the immediate holding of a general election because “it is only right that the British public have their say on who will be their next prime minister”.

He also stated that Mr Blair had said before the last election that he would serve a full third term and “the British electorate voted for him on that basis”.


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This was actually a radical call. As Sir Ming knows full well, we do not have a presidential-type election in this country.

Officially, our prime ministers are not, and never have been, directly elected by the people. In reality many of the people voting in a general election are mainly making a choice between the candidates for the post of prime minister.

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But strictly speaking, general elections determine the composition of the House of Commons, and the prime minister is the leader of the party, or coalition of parties, that has a majority of the seats in it.

Many prime ministers - including John Major and Jim Callaghan in recent decades - have acquired the job without first winning an endorsement in a general election.

Does Sir Ming want to move towards a US-style system under which there are separate national votes for the legislature and the head of the executive? Or is he making an exception of today's circumstances because of Mr Blair's vow to serve a full third term?

If he himself took the prime minister at his word when he said that, in September 2004, he should have known better. It was always inconceivable that Mr Blair would be able to remain prime minister through this parliament, for four-five years, right to the moment of calling a general election.

The need to allow his successor a reasonable amount of time to set out his stall - and actually get elected by his party - before a general election, precluded that. It was a bit of nonsense.

It is not, moreover, in any prime minister's power to fix his/her departure date several years ahead. If he loses the confidence of his party, he has to quit at a moment of its, rather than his, choosing. It's as simple as that.

This was dramatically confirmed in November 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was forced out. Hadn't many of the people who voted Tory in the 1987 general election done so in a belief that she would serve a full third term? Has Sir Ming really thought this one through?

One supposes not - and not least because there would be some considerable apprehension in his own party, after the local elections of May 3, if we were now in the throes of a general election campaign.

Sir Ming tried his best to put a favourable gloss on his party's performance in the council polling. It was a “mixed bag”, he declared, and the Lib Dems' share of the vote was higher than both the one gained in the last general election and their ratings in recent opinion polls. But they were nonetheless given a serious stuffing by the Tories, particularly in southern England, and suffered a net loss of almost 250 council seats. In some places where they had been running councils - South Norfolk, Torbay and Waverley in Surrey, for example - the Lib Dems almost suffered a wipe-out.

Local polls are of course different from general elections, and the Lib Dems have a long record of resilience and punching above their weight in target seats. But the May 3 results were very ominous for them, and they revived debate inside and beyond their party about Sir Ming's leadership. He's just not up to it. He's either too old or looks it. These are some of the disparaging comments one hears at Westminster.

And it was interesting that Sir Ming launched a pre-emptive strike - declaring that he would be staying on before anyone suggested he shouldn't - as the council results came in.

The party's problem surely goes beyond him. The council seats fought earlier this month were last contested four years ago in May 2003, just a few weeks after the start of the Iraq war. That was a big and electorally productive time for the Lib Dems as the only major party totally opposed to the war.

The issue gave them a sense of identity and purpose that is not, to put it mildly, always evident in other policy areas. What big policy difference, apart from Iraq, does a typical voter see between the Lib Dems and David Cameron's Tories?

The May 3 results contained firm evidence of a Cameron squeeze on Sir Ming's party. Politics can get very congested in the centre. It is possible that by nudging his party to the left Mr Brown will give the Lib Dems some extra room. But he ought to be too wily to do that, and it wouldn't be all that helpful to them in the south (and east) where their main battle is with the Conservatives.

Pressure on, and grumbling against, Sir Ming can be expected to increase if his party's fortunes do not pick up over the next few months.

It is hard to believe that a party that found it so hard to dispense with the services of Charles Kennedy despite widespread knowledge within its ranks of his drink problem, will want to give another leader the chop in the near future.

But Sir Ming might consider it best to step down in favour of a younger man. Nick Clegg, for example. And what about Norman Lamb, who in his North Norfolk fortress is showing his party how to stop the cliffs crumbling against Tory waves?

'MAD WORLD' DEVELOPMENTS

How can one not despair of both the United Nations and southern Africa after the announcement that Zimbabwe has been chosen to chair the UN commission on sustainable development?

It was once one of the richest countries in the continent, but has been reduced to penury, starvation and the lowest life expectancy in the world by the murderous dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. But do neighbouring African governments really do anything to stop it? Do they even care? The UN appointment came through the choice of African nations.

In another 'it's a mad world' development, Serbia has taken over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic must be very impressed, wherever they are. Perhaps they are happily humming the tune of Serbia's winning song in the execrable parade of both bias and Eurotrash that the Eurovision Song Contest has become.

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