The Ming dynasty lacks star quality

Seventeen months ago, the Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Charles Kennedy achieved their best result in a General Election since the 1920s, winning 62 seats on a 22% share of the vote.

Seventeen months ago, the Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Charles Kennedy achieved their best result in a General Election since the 1920s, winning 62 seats on a 22% share of the vote.

It wasn't enough. A consensus gradually developed that, up against an unpopular, right-wing Tory leader and a Labour Prime Minister damaged by the war in Iraq, the party should have done much better.

Mr Kennedy was accordingly ditched, his drink problem merely providing a convenient pretext for a course of action that some Lib Dem MPs had determined upon some months previously.

And at its conference in Brighton this week, Lib Dem activists completed the clearout, voting to ditch the single most distinctive policy on which the party fought not just that election, but the previous one, too.

For new leader Sir Menzies Campbell, it's all about moving the party from Mr Kennedy's conception of it as "the real opposition" to being what he called "a party of government". But whether that laudable aim has been made any more achievable by the week's events in Brighton is still very much open to question.

Lib Dem apologists will argue that the adoption of the new "fairer, not higher" taxation policy constitutes a major step forward, and that any lingering doubts over Sir Menzies' leadership have been extinguished.

For my part, I reckon they are wrong on both counts, and that the underlying strategic issues facing the party remain unresolved.

So to take taxation policy first, this is being sold by the party leadership as a switch from income taxes to green taxes, an extension of the "polluter pays" principle that has long been part of Lib Dem thinking.

But that is actually not the most distinctive feature of what, by anyone's standards, is a fiendishly complex set of proposals.

No, the really big change, the one which will have by far the biggest political impact, is the decision to increase the 40% tax threshold from around £33,000 at present to £50,000. What this amounts to in practice is a multi-million pound tax giveaway to the middle-classes, to be made up by green taxes that will more or less affect everyone across the board.

Now don't get me wrong. I have argued previously in this column that something needed to be done about the problem of "fiscal drag" whereby, with each Budget that went by, more and more people ended up in the 40% tax bracket.

Gordon Brown has used it shamelessly as one of his many stealth taxes, refusing to increase the thresholds in line with inflation as was invariably the case up until 1997.

The Lib Dems have now trumped both Labour and the Tories by pledging to tackle it, and to be fair to them, it might well turn out to be a vote winner.

But progressive taxation it isn't. And my worry is that it will end up sending out a mixed message about what kind of party the Liberal Democrats really are - as if there were not enough confusion about that already.

What, then, of Sir Menzies? Well, one of the happier consequences of my decision to give up being this newspaper's political editor two years ago was that I no longer had to attend party conferences.

For someone seeking to report accurately and authoritatively on politics, they are a necessary evil. But for the more reflective role of commentator, it's a different story.

When you are in the thick of it all - whether at Westminster or the conferences - you tend to talk mainly to other journalists, to spin doctors, to the politicians themselves.

Being outside of all that gives you a slightly different perspective, one that I think is probably more in tune with what the general public, as opposed to the political cognoscenti, really thinks.

Never was this contrast more aptly demonstrated than in the case of Ming Campbell. He has always been much admired at Westminster for his "gravitas" and "statesmanlike" qualities.

And sure enough, his speech on Thursday was duly reported by the Lobby as having "cemented" his position and "drawn a line" under questions about his leadership.

Except that, in the public's eyes, it did no such thing. "He just seems to me like an old man with no authority" was just one of the comments I heard on Thursday afternoon.

And that, I'm afraid, is Sir Ming's problem - that unlike Tony Blair and David Cameron, he lacks the "star quality" required to get an apathetic public to sit up and take notice.

In fact, Ming Campbell's best - some would say only - hope of moving the Lib Dems from a party of opposition to a party of government lies with the electoral system. With the next election expected to be tight, the Lib Dems could easily lose more than half their seats yet still find themselves holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament.

But even this is a highly problematical scenario. If Campbell went into a coalition to prop up a beaten and discredited Labour government, he would condemn his party to public obloquy.

If on the other hand he tried to do a deal with Mr Cameron's Tories, his mainly left-leaning activists would almost certainly reject it, leaving him vulnerable to a leadership challenge.

Today, the conference caravan moves on to Manchester, the first non-seaside venue to host a gathering of the big two parties for more than a generation.

What could prove a seminal week for Labour begins in the shadow of a poll showing 69% of people now see the party as divided and Mr Cameron ahead of Mr Brown on virtually every count.

Over the past week, Sir Menzies Campbell has failed to convince that, save by an electoral quirk, he can get his party into government.

This week, Messrs Blair and Brown may find it equally hard to convince people that theirs deserves to stay put there.

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