The removal of Charles Kennedy as Liberal Democrat leader has been a particularly unpleasant business, and I have a hunch that it’s going to be very difficult for the Lib Dems to get over it. I can see why so many of his fellow Lib Dem MPs thought he had to go: he was a shambolic leader, too fond of the pop, apparently clueless about what to do next.
But now he’s gone, they’ve got a bigger problem – because, for all Kennedy’s faults, they don’t currently have anyone better. Menzies Campbell is an insufferable patrician toff; Simon Hughes is a happy-clappy vicar. And that’s about it when it comes to recognisable faces. There’s that bloke with the glasses, and the other one who’s bald – no, not the bald one with the glasses, the other one. Oh, and there’s that woman who won … where was it? No, not her, the blonde.
Add to the mix the arrival of David Cameron as Tory leader, and the Lib Dems look set for a dire time post-Kennedy – and that’s if they manage to keep under control their increasingly fierce internal ideological divisions. Of course, they might just find their own Cameron, a hitherto obscure but dynamic young figure around whom they can unite, and go on to sustain or even improve on their electoral performance in 2005. But hunch says it will be Campbell and a vicious circle of falling opinion poll ratings, panic and internal squabbling.
Some on the left would no doubt welcome a Lib Dem implosion, but I’m not one of them. The main beneficiaries of a collapse in the Lib Dem vote would be the Tories. Not only are they the main challengers to sitting Lib Dem MPs in the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem seats, they would also gobble up the anti-Labour vote elsewhere.
Until now, I’ve been sceptical about claims that the Tories could win in 2009, even after Cameron’s victory. But now I’m not so confident. Indeed, if Cameron manages to complete his centrist repositioning of the Tories, the Lib Dems collapse and Labour botches the succession from Tony Blair, they could even be a shoo-in.