The Lib Dems’ problem is not their leader

The leader of the Liberal Democrats should be in good mood this week, and not just because he goes to his party conference with the largest number of MPs in 80 years.

His local town Fort William has just won Shinty's Camanachd Cup, making it the world champion of this spectacular Highland game. The joke doing the rounds at the match was that Charles Kennedy had finished off the complimentary Glenmorangie whisky.

There are still those who believe Kennedy's image has never recovered from that famous Jeremy Paxman interview, in which the party leader's drinking habits were discussed. But the whole point of Kennedy is that he is not like the other political leaders and is admired by most people. Despite rumblings from a few ambitious MPs he is liked by his party too, with more support than Paddy Ashdown ever had.

This week in Blackpool it is not Kennedy's image that has come under scrutiny but the party's tax-and-spend image. Most Lib Dems realise that it is time to abolish their policy of 50 per cent tax
for those earning more than £100,000 – a policy that in practice would actually bring in very little extra revenue.

But the policy that really did for the third party at the last election was local income tax. Kennedy admitted this week that 'the presentation' of this tax could have been better. It was, of course, his total failure to even understand the figures that forced his party onto the back foot from day one of its election campaign. He may have had the excuse that he had been up all night with his new-born son Donald, but that was not the real problem.

The problem was the policy itself. Many would end up paying more than they do in council tax, and despite what some people say they won't vote to be worse off.

Moreover, the Lib Dems fatally raised expectations, so that when they 'only' won 62 seats it was seen as a failure. The Tories did the opposite. What for them was undoubtedly yet another humiliating defeat seemed like a good result. Even more remarkable, Michael Howard was seen as a winner and Kennedy, for the first time, as a loser.

Ken Clarke, though, is right to be worried about the Lib Dems. They failed to do any real damage to the Tories because they were seen to be too far to the left. Once they realise that it is the centre ground that matters most in British politics, they could replace the Tories as the second force. But ditching their leader is not the solution.

charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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