Cicero has yet to come to a final conclusion about the Liberal Democrat leadership contest. It is a shame that Mark Oaten was such an uninspiring figurehead for the so-called "right" of the party. There is a case for "tough liberalism", that is to say that not everyone gets prizes in our society, but Mark did not make such a case with particular conviction. He was also mistaken on the smoking issue- the reason for regulation of smokers is the damage that they do to others through secondary smoking, not the damage that they do to themselves which, higher healthcare costs aside, is not a concern of the state. So all in all his campaign began in confusion: the cringe-making response to Andrew Neil's charge: "Four words: unlimited ambition, limited ability"- Oaten: "That's not four words" ,is best put behind us. I therefore welcome his sensible decision to withdraw.
Simon Hughes, the supposed standard bearer of the "left", has been suprisingly good at articulating the Liberal vision: that there are things that the state should not do, indeed must not be allowed to do. However I have two concerns, one of perception and one of reality. Firstly voting for Simon will be portrayed as a "move to the left"- although even if Simon actually is more of a social liberal, I detect only a question of emphasis rather than fundamental changes compared to the current regime. Yet I do think that perception is everything, and I am reluctant to take this risk at a time when British politics is so fluid. More fundamentally Simon struggles to articulate, in an effective and pithy way, his vision. This suggests disorganization, and the comment that I heard at a Liberal Democrat gathering last night: "Simon would miss more meetings sober, than Charles did drunk" may not be too wide of the mark. It is certainly noticeable that his Parliamentary colleagues have been less enthusiastic about a Hughes leadership than one might have imagined that they would be.
The candidature of Chris Huhne I do find interesting. His undoubted intellect and experience have marked him out as a potential star for some time. Despite his weaker Parliamentary majority, he is clearly respected by many who are close to him, and I appreciate his strong grasp of key issues. The fact that he has chosen the environment to be the ground to lay out some genuinely radical ideas is also both bold and appealing. However, as I have examined his ideas more closely I find that, while his diagnosis of the problems of the environment is substantive, I am nervous about his solutions. I am by no means convinced that the solution to pollution is taxation. The majority of the press in any event characterize the Liberal Democrats as a high tax party, even though this is not true, since we have indicated that we intend to cap the proportion of National Income that is due to the State. However, I would have preferred to see such ideas as carbon trading and polluter fees brought more to the fore in the mix of policies-taxation may not be the most effective way to control the undeniable problem.
Menzies Campbell remains the man to beat. To a certain extent I regard his age as a positive. Firstly he has considerable hinterland- he is not a kid politician and has achieved many things in life away from politics. As far as image is concerned he is certainly credible as a future Prime Minister, especially when one considers that many of our great Prime Ministers, Churchill and Gladstone to name but two, were even older when in office and at the height of their careers. I like the idea of experienced gravitas showing up the callow weaknesses of "Comrade Cameron's Conservatives". Nonetheless, I still have some qualms about his political agenda. His support for "the project" in the mid 1990's was a sensible strategic positioning at the time, but the failure of Labour at both Westminster and Holyrood gives us some clear lessons- I would like to hear Ming articulate what these are.
I retain an open mind and am optimistic about the way that the debate is going. What the press seem to forget is that whether "social" or "economic"- which in any event I do not regard as mutually exclusive- we are all "political" Liberals, and far more unites us than could ever divide us.