There is just one consolation for Sir Menzies Campbell as he prepares for his second and probably last conference as Liberal Democrat leader: they will not come after him in Brighton. It is too late, now, to knife the leader. Gordon Brown could call an election at any moment, and there is no time for regicide. Sir Menzies has been saved by the sheer desperation of his predicament.
So much fun has been had blaming David Cameron for Labour’s lead in the opinion polls that few have looked closely at where Mr Brown’s new voters are really coming from. The Conservatives have, in fact, held on to their voters reasonably well. The Lib Dems, by contrast, have suffered an exodus. For years, the Lib Dem party has been used as a left-wing sanctuary for voters who could not stomach Tony Blair. Now he has gone, they are returning to the Labour fold.
If today’s polls were tomorrow’s election results, Sir Menzies would be leading his troops into a massacre — from 63 seats to just 35, according to the latest YouGov research. That would be the sharpest retreat since Jeremy Thorpe lost half the Liberal party’s seats in June 1970. Such a prospect will give extra fervour to the Lib Dem prayer groups which normally start each day’s conference meeting: the end may indeed be nigh.
By no means all of this is Sir Menzies’s fault. At the last election, his party was alone in campaigning on the environment and against the Iraq war. Now the Conservative party logo is a fuzzy green tree, and the Iraq debate is now simply about when to withdraw troops from Basra. The Lib Dems have remained ideologically steady, while others have changed. This is the problem. The voice of the party, once distinctive, is drowned out by the Cameron v Brown screaming match.
Without any of the ultimatums or drama that attended Charles Kennedy’s downfall, the party has decided that Sir Menzies is for the chop. The battle to succeed him has already started. There are two frontrunners: Chris Huhne, the ambitious environment spokesman, and Nick Clegg, the party’s affable home affairs spokesman. Both have featured with suspicious regularity in the gazette pages of the Liberal Democrat News, giving speeches to distant constituencies.
As next week’s conference may be the last before a party leadership election, both will be setting out their stalls at fringe events, so the party can size them up. Both are Westminster School alumni and both have two years’ experience in the Commons. Mr Clegg looks younger than his 40 years, and sounds like a Tory without being on the party’s right wing. ‘But he is not quite battle-ready,’ says one supporter. Mr Huhne, 53, came second in the last leadership campaign, but critics say he is too grey a character and entered politics too late to lay a serious claim to the party’s leadership.
It is hard not to pity Sir Menzies. At least Iain Duncan Smith had to face a real rebellion. The Lib Dems are carrying on as if their leader is already finished. While Sir Menzies will be at the podium shouting his two key messages (‘tax the rich, not the poor’ and ‘Cameron isn’t really green’), his party will be focused on whether Mr Huhne is too dull or Mr Clegg too lightweight.
And yet there is a twist of electoral fate which could render all leadership manoeuvrings redundant. Should Sir Menzies fail to wrest back votes back from Mr Cameron, the Conservatives may well be strong enough to deny Labour an absolute majority. Mr Brown may then have to enter a coalition — and Sir Menzies may yet end up in government. He needs relatively few MPs. Sir David Steel had just 14 when he negotiated a pact with the Callaghan government.
This prospect greatly excites Lib Dem grass roots, who are already talking about negotiating positions. Such discussions would be conducted in just a few days, and without consulting the party. This may be the last time they meet before agreeing a Lib-Lab Pact, such as they have already seen in the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament.
But analysis published last week by Centre Forum, a liberal think tank, says this would be impractical if Gordon Brown was perceived to have taken a beating at the election — regardless of the technicalities. It is possible, for example, for Labour to be the largest party even if the Conservatives win a million more votes. Should the Lib Dems be seen to help Mr Brown cheat political death by giving him a majority, it is likely that both parties would be hated for it and any coalition would be a suicide pact.
We must add to this the ‘England factor’. England voted Tory at the last election, and is only governed by Labour thanks to the Celtic fringe and Westminster’s notoriously unfair voting system. Should there be a clear majority of Tories in England, it would be difficult for two men from Fife to run Britain between them, as if exacting revenge for Edward I. The Prime Minister is aware of England’s likely reaction to a Campbell-Brown duumvirate (or rule by ‘Ming and Minger’, as one unkind shadow Cabinet member puts it). The gulf between the possible and plausible is a large one.
The coalition idea is one Sir Menzies dares not discuss in public. When he spoke of his ‘five tests’ for Mr Brown at his Harrogate spring conference last year, he was deluged with protest from Lib Dems who face a Tory threat and deeply fear the slogan ‘vote Liberal, get Labour’ (which Mr Cameron is likely to use anyway). So we can expect the coalition issue to be discussed at the conference, but in awkward code.
Sir Menzies will therefore head to Brighton with two very different fates hanging over him. If he does badly at the next election, he will either face summary execution or promotion to the Cabinet. But he will know by now, by the cheers on the Tory and Labour benches when he rises to speak in the Commons, that his prolonged survival as an opposition leader is not an option.