‘I’m going to take my tie half-off,’ Sir Menzies Campbell announces. ‘Feel free to do so.’ It is a sweltering afternoon in his office, and there is no etiquette governing how men should strip off in such circumstances. I lower my tie knot an inch or so. He takes off his jacket. I follow suit. ‘There’s nothing I can take off,’ pipes up his press officer, sitting beside me in a dress. Sir Menzies blushes, stutters and moves straight on to the subject: his relaunch as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
He would bridle at this description, but this in effect is what is underway. Elected in March as a man of stature who would stop David Cameron’s advance, Sir Menzies appeared to lose his grip almost immediately, fluffing his lines at Prime Minister’s Questions. His old enemies muttered darkly about ousting him at the next party conference. Charles Kennedy pointedly refused to rule out a comeback.
Now Sir Menzies is fighting back. He’s brushed up his Commons performance and has learnt how to remove his spectacles and jab them at the Prime Minister. He is scoring hits on foreign policy. At the end of June the Lib Dems almost defeated the Conservatives in the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election, the 17th safest Tory seat in Britain. To Sir Menzies, this is the start of a yellow offensive against the Tories.
‘I’m pretty relaxed about Cameron coming on to our ground. We staked it out a long time ago and if he wants a fight in it, fine. It’s ours, we know it,’ he says. His voters will see the Conservative leader as a fraud. ‘Where are David Cameron’s convictions? He wrote the last Tory manifesto, a document 100 miles away from where he is today. He has not travelled an ideological journey, as Thatcher did. He’s thought “we can’t win doing what we did before so we’ll do something else”.’
Lib Dem policies are also becoming clearer. There will be less income and corporation tax, but more environmental and local authority taxes. The Lib Dems’ tax-the-rich policy survives, but in new guise. Instead of a 50p income tax, there will be environmental taxes and wealth taxes, the details as yet unannounced. Crucially, the overall tax burden stays where Gordon Brown has pushed it up to — but Sir Menzies points out that the Conservative shadow chancellor has no better offer.
‘George Osborne is supporting these very high levels of tax,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s not quite Butskellism. But there has emerged a kind of consensus that no one is going to cut the overall tax burden. So we have been the first party to say “right, within that there should be different priorities”. It’s a point missed by much of the media: he proposes a tax shift, not a tax cut.’
The Lib Dem policy shake-up is being accelerated because Sir Menzies suspects it will be needed sooner than expected. ‘I have put our troops on standby for an election in October 2007,’ he says. ‘If Gordon Brown becomes leader next autumn, and gets an opinion poll bounce, he may well be tempted to seek his own mandate immediately.’ The idea is not so fanciful: senior Conservatives offer the same analysis. Both opposition parties seriously believe we could be less than 18 months away from yet another general election.
So if there is such an election, polls suggest the Tories would be the largest party but fail to win an overall majority. In that case, wouldn’t…. ‘Ha! I know what you’re going to say,’ he interrupts. This is the coalition question, and he has been looking forward to not answering it. ‘I am a veteran of the 1983 and 1987 general elections. I saw the SDP–Liberal alliance blown off course by allowing this question to be discussed. I’m not going to let that happen. I simply say “maximum votes, maximum seats”.’
I will be wasting my time, he cheerfully informs me, repackaging this question in another way — so I try a few ideological tests. What does he think of the ‘choice’ agenda in public services, which Labour has introduced and the Conservatives plan to extend? ‘Where’s the evidence that it works? A health service should be free at the point of use. Who benefits from diluting that, as Labour seems determined to do? I see no one other than private companies.’
But he opposes Labour’s plans to raise tax even higher. ‘We think the overall tax burden should remain where it is now.’ Would a Lib Dem government consider lowering it? ‘Not impossible. The money is being spent. The question now is setting free doctors, nurses to do what they’re good at and stopping the micromanagement which is a feature of Mr Brown’s Treasury.’ Again, this echoes Tory policy.
Sir Menzies has made his name in foreign policy, so his ideas on domestic policy remain an enigma. His party houses free-market liberals and Old Labour socialists, creating an ideological conflict which Charles Kennedy famously refused to resolve. So where does Sir Menzies stand? Where is his irreducible core?
‘The three things I believe in are freedom, ambition and compassion. And I feel particularly strongly about ambition because I have had four lives. I was lucky enough to be an international Olympic athlete, I was lucky enough to go to the Bar and take silk, lucky enough to become an MP and then lucky enough to become leader of the party. I want a country where that sort of opportunity is available to anyone willing to take it.’ This is personal narrative as policy: a Cameron-style tactic.
Sir Menzies can be forgiven for using this ploy as his life story is by any standards extraordinary (and the subject of a forthcoming autobiography). No one becomes an Olympic athlete by luck or accident. He possesses extraordinary determination which does not seem to have weakened with age. Nor does he mention his fifth life: recovery from cancer after being diagnosed aged 60. He made a full recovery after chemotherapy, and encouraged by Elspeth, his wife, he went straight back to work.
‘I suffer from — or should I say am influenced by — the Protestant work ethic,’ he says. He also seems to have been raised by parents who were hard to impress. I ask what their reaction was when he was selected for the British Olympic team and he remembers instantly.
‘It was, “Well done. What would you like for tea?” That’s a big thing in one’s life and I remember it clearly. For them my sport, my going to university and getting two degrees, they saw it as a natural progression. It’s a very Scottish thing. I’m very certain I don’t have to tell you.’
We’re both Scots, but in the corner of the Highlands where I was raised, being selected for the egg-and-spoon race was a matter for parental celebration, never mind the 18th Olympiad. ‘Well, my parents were ambitious for me, no doubt about it. But insofar as these were achievements’ — he is presumably referring to holding the British 100-metres record for seven years — ‘no great fuss was made of them. They were the expected reward for the effort you were expected to put in.’
Sir Menzies makes no great fuss of himself either, not always a virtue in politics. As I waited for him, his secretary was wrapping a book bought as a leaving gift for an intern. She had asked Sir Menzies to inscribe it, but he instead signed a separate piece of paper inserted inside. He did not want to spoil the title page. ‘Signing it is the whole point,’ she tutted. ‘Then you can sell it on eBay.’
This is the strength and weakness in Sir Menzies. He lacks the superego, bluster and ability to bluff which are tiresome in a man, but often vital in a party leader. He admits he was unready for the demands of leadership. ‘I went to stay with Paddy [Ashdown] the other night and he said, “Nothing you ever do in politics prepares you to lead the party.” He had similar difficulties when he started. But life’s a series of challenges.’
There are three toy soldiers on his bookshelf, a nod to his military interests. His father-in-law was Major General Roy Urquhart, a war hero played by Sean Connery in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far. He later commanded British troops in occupied Austria. Would Sir Menzies like to follow him, in a way, as defence secretary? ‘There are a number of jobs I’d like,’ he says, laughing. He detects the coalition question again, and shuts up.
But as if he cannot help but answer the question, albeit in code, he then outlines a political credo which makes any alliance with the Conservatives unthinkable. ‘I have always thought that the natural heartbeat of Britain is in the centre Left.’ So how does he account for all these postwar Conservative governments? ‘The Left has been divided. That was one of Tony Blair’s great propositions: that if the Left was not joined up, but at least in association, you can create a 21st century dominated by the Left in the way the Right dominated in the 20th century.’
He talks as if preparing to dust down this blueprint today with his fellow Fife MP Gordon Brown. Does he not consider the British Left divided today? ‘I would say it has one party,’ he says: his own. ‘On the Labour benches you have a left-wing party, of 30 to 40 rebels, and an authoritarian party [the government].’
Mr Kennedy assiduously avoided left-right language, fearful of alienating voters, and said simply that his party was ‘above’ the others. Sir Menzies, by contrast, calls himself a ‘progressive’ and proudly claims to lead Britain’s only remaining left-wing party. Conservatives relying on his co-operation in a hung parliament had better start thinking of a Plan B.