The downfall of Ming Campbell shows the power of unfair perceptions. The party would be wise to avoid repeating the mistake of picking the candidate we all know is good but who is vulnerable to these unfair perceptions.
Life is unfair or at least it is if your name is Menzies Campbell. He is a man of real talent, conviction and decency. One of the few of todays politicians who deserves to be called a statesman. He would have made a great prime minister. This is not, however, how most people will remember him. Instead the image that is likely to stay in the public imagination is of a doddering old man pointing down a toilet.
The brutal divide between reality and the media generated perception is a wholly awful, fact of political life that we can do nothing about. We cannot repeat the mistake we made the last time, we elected a leader and overlook this.
I have a great admiration for Nick Clegg. He is smart (dummies don't speak five languages), elequont, able to devise good ideas, handsome (apparently) and truely liberal. But I won't be voting for him.
I do have some criticisms of Nick. He made a mistake by not challenging Ming for the leadership of the party and it is to Chris' credit that he had the guts to do so. I also think his support for the replacement of trident was a mistake. Not only was it bad policy but it also hurt us politically because it gave the SNP a wedge issue to use against us. And for all his qualities, Nick is not really a party man, he has in the past shown irritation with activists and he is perhaps less comfortable with the parties traditions than his rival. Huhne is someone who can attend the conference Glee club without looking out of place. I imagine that Nick would rather die than spend hours listening to hundreds of inebriated lib dem activists singing painfully unfunny songs about delivering leaflets (this is a view I share). A leader who activists see as one of their own will find it easier to motivate them and to win back their trust.
This is, however, all small fry. It does not matter hugely. If these were the only problems with his candidacy, I would be backing him. The great obstacle he faces is not down to any mistakes he has made or any personal flaws, in fact quite the opposite. His problem is that ever since he stood for leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron has been doing what is in effect a bad Nick Clegg impression. 'Dave' knew that he needed to appear modern, humane, progressive and above all liberal. His way of doing this was to rhetoric that sounds remarkably like Nick's. The way that they deliver speeches is very similar, making liberal use of Blairite pauses. There is also a certain similarity in their appearance. Nick has also been labelled by the press as a right winger. It is almost certain that he will be percieved as being very close to the Tories.
This perception of Nick as a 'Blue Dem' is of course as far from the truth as the view of Ming as a senile old man in a wheelchair. That will not stop it take taking hold and it will not stop it damaging us.
Anybody imagining that this is not a perception that will stick needs to bare in mind that pretty much the first question Clegg was asked at the press conference after launching his leadership bid was 'aren't you really a Tory?' At a time we are facing a situation of 'differentiate or die' having a leader the press believe is actually a Tory is to say the least a risk.
Fortunately there is another equally talented potential leader in the running. Chris Huhne is one of the are most able MPs. He presents an intelligent case for liberalism, localism and environmentalism with clarity and conviction. His first run for leader broke the tabboo about advocating environmental taxation that had existed since the fuel protests and was an important step in the greening of British politics. His experience in the buisness and the media give him a grounding in the real world and the skills to take on Labour and the Tories.
I am happy to lend him my support. If you would like to do the same please visit http://www.chris2win.org/