British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Update 2 - March 2006: Election of new leader of the Liberal Democrats

Following the messy forced resignation of leader Charles Kennedy on January 8 th, 2006 some Liberal Democrat MPs envisaged a ‘coronation’ for his respected deputy, Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell, who had the support of most of the parliamentary party. Yet MPs lacked the power to decide the issue. Alone among the big parties it is solely ordinary party members of the Liberal Democrats who elect their party leader. Thus quite possibly party members might choose a leader who was not the first choice of the parliamentary party, one reason why some MPs hoped an election might be avoided. Yet it was also clear that a party that always prided itself on its internal democracy could hardly duck a contest, particularly after the Conservative Party’s successful leadership election that had boosted the main opposition party’s poll ratings. Thus Campbell was soon faced with three rivals, the party’s President, Simon Hughes, popular with the grass roots, Mark Oaten, then Home Affair’s spokesperson, and the virtually unknown Chris Huhne, a former MEP who had only been elected to Westminster for nine months.

Whereas the Conservative leadership election had resulted in much largely favourable publicity for the party, the Liberal Democrat contest began disastrously. Mark Oaten was forced to give up his own candidacy after newspaper revelations that he had paid for sex with a rent boy, while Simon Hughes’ campaign was damaged when he was constrained to admit to gay relationships that he had previously denied. The ‘outing’ of Hughes in a society that has come to accept same sex relationships might not have been so damaging had it not been for his previous denials. Newspapers also recalled the successful but notably homophobic campaign that had been conducted on behalf of Simon Hughes against the gay Labour candidate Peter Tatchell in a by-election at Bermondsey in 1983. Hughes, however, did not feel obliged to retire from the contest, and in the longer run the revelations perhaps did him little harm among party members or the wider public. Yet the initial impact of the scandals certainly seemed to damage a party already weakened by the circumstances of Kennedy’s resignation, and party members were despondent as poll ratings plummeted. Some pundits predicted a continuing squeeze on the Liberal Democrats and a return to traditional two party politics. (David Cameron had already proclaimed his own ‘liberal’ credentials in a provocative bid for support from former Liberal Democrats).

Sir Menzies Campbell had been the clear front-runner as a respected deputy leader who had gained public prominence from his principled stand against the Iraq War as the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson. Yet his failure to make an impact as acting leader at Prime Minister’s Questions, and his lack-lustre performance in debates and interviews raised question-marks against his age (64). Some doubted whether he was sufficiently energetic or dynamic to take on Blair (or presumably Brown later on) and the youthful David Cameron. Simon Hughes had campaigned more effectively than some of his colleagues had expected, but the surprise package in the leadership contest proved to be the young rank outsider, Chris Huhne, who soon won admiring support from party members. Bookies, recalling how the ‘outsider’ David Cameron had eventually defeated the long-time front-runner David Davies by a substantial margin in the Conservative election, made Chris Huhne the favourite.

Yet the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps Campbell too, received a much-needed boost in the midst of the leadership campaign. Against most expectations the Liberal Democrats captured the previously safe Labour seat of Dunfermline and West Fife, held on February 9 th, with a massive swing of over 16%. Neither Cameron’s Conservatives nor the Scottish Nationalist made any impact. Despite a month of appalling publicity, the party had demonstrated it was still a potent threat at the polls. Campbell (along with former leader Charles Kennedy) had taken a prominent role in the by-election campaign, as had Gordon Brown (MP for a neighbouring constituency) on the Labour side. The significance of the result for the future electoral prospects of Campbell and Brown was not lost on commentators.

However, both Huhne and Hughes continued to campaign strongly, and the eventual result was something of a surprise. Menzies Campbell, the early front-runner, won fairly comfortably. The result was as follows:
First round Second round
Sir Menzies Campbell 23,264 29,697 (58%)
Chris Huhne 16,691 21,628 (42%)
Simon Hughes 12,081 -

Turnout was 52,036 (72% of some 73,000 party members)

In the end the party could be well-satisfied. There was a clear winner on a high turnout, but the other candidates had not been humiliated, and immediately declared their full support for the new leader, as did former leader Charles Kennedy. An apparently united party had emerged from two months of turmoil and some bad publicity in good health, its poll ratings restored to the levels of 2005. However, critics questioned whether the leadership campaign had settled the future direction of the party. Some party activists feared that Campbell would shift the party to the right and the economic liberals would gain influence. Others worried about the tactics a Campbell-led party would pursue in the event of a hung parliament. Would it prop up a Labour government (as had the Liberals in 1977-8) or would it put David Cameron in Downing Street?

In his first appointments to his front-bench team Campbell promoted some inexperienced new MPs (including three women) to key roles, but kept on a number of leading figures on both the left and right of the party. It will take some time before it is clear what direction the new leader is taking the Liberal Democrats. Yet this is a matter of some importance as recent events suggest that three party politics is here to stay, and the Liberal Democrats could hold the balance of power after the next election.

The new Liberal Democrat front bench:

  • Party leader - Sir Menzies Campbell
  • Treasury spokesman - Vince Cable
  • Home affairs - Nick Clegg
  • Trade and industry - Edward Davey
  • Culture, media and sport - Don Foster
  • Affairs relating to chief secretary to the Treasury - Julia Goldsworthy
  • Defence - Nick Harvey
  • Commons leader - David Heath
  • Constitutional affairs - Simon Hughes
  • Environment, food and rural affairs - Chris Huhne
  • International development - Susan Kramer
  • Leader’s chief of staff - Norman Lamb
  • Work and Pensions - David Laws
  • Lords Leader -Lord McNally
  • Foreign affairs -Michael Moore
  • Northern Ireland, Wales - Lembit Opik
  • Chief whip in the Lords - Lord Shutt
  • Chief whip and affairs of OPDM - Andrew Stunell
  • Scotland - Jo Swinson
  • Education - Sarah Teather
  • Health - Steve Webb