Party in search of a leading light

Poor Ming Campbell. After a sticky start, and the shortest party leadership honeymoon on record, no sooner had the Liberal Democrat opinion poll ratings begun to ascend from their deep doldrums, than the headlines were hijacked by new revelations about Charles Kennedy's alcoholism and its cover up by Ming and other key Lib Dems. The fear now is that the media at the party's annual conference will be preoccupied with juicy sidelines at the expense of much needed party efforts to promote its political image.

The Liberal Democrats create few set piece opportunities for fevered manifesto debates and policy clashes, even though playing safe is hardly an attention grabbing option for a third party. However, nothing seems to stop party members dicing with political death by speculating publicly on their leader's survival prospects. Initial murmurings were about Campbell's lack of experience on domestic policy and his reticent performances at the weekly circus also known as Prime Minister's questions.

The latter difficulty was somewhat of a surprise given Campbell's long experience on his feet in court as an advocate, but the alleged policy lacuna is extremely curious. Here we are with the news dominated day after day by the situation in the Middle East and in Afghanistan and the man who seemed to be permanently on the airwaves with his well modulated good sense on the Iraq situation is rarely to be seen or heard.

In political terms, three years on from the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair is getting away scot free with his disastrous error and with his continued alliance with George W Bush. It is understandable that the Labour and Conservative parties which formally supported the war are inhibited in their criticisms but that should not apply to the Liberal Democrats who - bravely at the time - opposed it. Similarly, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, Sir Menzies repeatedly insisted that the Israeli government's settler policy had jeopardised the prospect of a viable Palestinian state and condemned Ariel Sharon as a peace wrecker. Here again is a Lib Dem policy that is currently muted, just when it is most needed.

What is the point of having sixty-three MPs if their impact on the biggest political issue for fifty years is nil? What is the point of being the largest third force in parliament for over eighty years if it is largely impotent? There are tremendous pressures within the House of Commons to behave respectably and to conform to the parliamentary traditions, but if the Lib Dems were brave enough to use every conceivable opportunity to hold up government business and to highlight the daily death toll in Baghdad that is the consequence of British and US policy in Iraq, there would be an eloquent public response. There is a significant anti-war crusade waiting to be led.

Similarly no lasting response to the Hamas-Hizbullah axis in Palestine and Lebanon is possible without the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Israel is either entirely cynical or wholly naive if it believes that more than 250,000 colonists in the West Bank and a ghetto-creating wall can be other than inflammatory. Why are the Lib Dems not hammering this point home at every opportunity during the present war in Lebanon?

It all comes back to leadership. Certainly today's politics, with the dominance of television, puts a massive premium on the ability to enthuse and persuade via the small screen, but charisma has always been important. The replacement of Asquith by Lloyd George, and Chamberlain by Churchill, was all about the need to inspire the public at time of wartime crisis rather than the need for a change of policy.

Liberals, and now Liberal Democrats, have always needed leaders who could punch above their weight. My generation was inspired by Jo Grimond who managed to distract the electorate from the fact that for most of the time he led a mere half dozen MPs. Liberal leaders who followed Grimond have been different from him in one crucial regard. They may have had a certain charismatic quality but they lacked Grimond's intellectual depth and confidence. Thorpe - a showman; Steel - a manipulator; and Ashdown - the craggy man for the trenches. Despite everything Charles Kennedy still hovers around the top table but needs to realise that his alcoholism wasn't the reason for his downfall but rather the means of achieving it. Crucially, leaders need both intellect and charisma.

The Liberal Democrats are crazy if they continue to mutter against Ming Campbell behind their hands without having a clear and immediately anointable successor restlessly awaiting the call. Recently I asked a very senior Liberal Democrat who there was amongst the sixty-three MPs who had what it takes to lead the party. His response was a long pause for reflection and the response that there was no-one immediately apparent. Nick Clegg, the MP for Sheffield Hallam, is often mentioned but I suspect he has the intellect but not that inspirational ability that needs to go with it.

It may be currently unfashionable to look across the Atlantic for parallels but recent American politics revealed that, despite all his moral failings and his economies with the truth, Bill Clinton would have easily won a third term - unlike the more worthy but desperately dull Al Gore or John Kerry.

The focus on the USA wrongly diverts attention away from that country to its north which is much more akin to our style of politics. Canada has always been very relaxed and pragmatic about its problems of immigration, bi-lingualism and federalism. It helps, of course, to be the second largest country in the world, but the strength of its constitution and its basic stability have much to teach us.

The Canadian Liberal party has been the dominant force in Canadian politics for over forty years and its most successful leader was Pierre Trudeau who vividly combined the two key attributes of charisma and intellect. The astonishing fact about Trudeau is that he did not join the Liberal party until the summer of 1965, but was elected to parliament the same year and became leader of the party - and Prime Minister - in April 1968. He remained Prime Minister for all bar a few months over the following sixteen years.

The Canadian Liberals are currently going through another leadership election. Following the Trudeau example, one of the leading candidates is Michael Ignatieff who, as commentator, author and broadcaster, was a frequent performer on our television screens. Remarkably, such is the freshness of Canadian politics that the fact that he was only elected to parliament for the first time in last January's general election appears to be no disadvantage to his leadership aspirations. <

Ming Campbell's task is clear. Take up the moral crusade that is crying out for leadership. The lessons for Britain's Liberal Democrats are clearer still. Be very wary of doing the Samson act of pulling down the electoral temple on to the heads of party supporters, but if, despite all the dangers, you believe that a change of leader has to be faced, do nothing until you have the right person hovering in the wings - and don't rule out any current MP. The British electorate may well turn out to be just as ready for a younger, more lively image as their Canadian counterparts.