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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 19:01 GMT
Guarding Ming
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Lib Dem spring conference, Harrogate

The two most underemployed people in Harrogate on Saturday were probably the security guards hired to protect Sir Menzies Campbell.

Sir Menzies Campbell
Sir Menzies was well-protected on his walkabout

They certainly looked the part. Dark suits. Earpieces. Cuff microphones. Gliding through the crowds in that discreet yet purposeful way that security men do, eyes darting, ever watchful for potential threats.

They had been hired, said one, because the party thought Sir Menzies' "popularity has been heightened" since becoming leader.

But if party managers were fearing a spontaneous outbreak of Ming mania in Harrogate town centre, they were to be disappointed. Or should that be relieved?

For in previous years, these walkabouts have been pretty lively affairs.


Last year, Sir Menzies, making his debut as party leader, was pelted with snowballs by local youths.

The year before that, Charles Kennedy, in what would turn out to be his swansong as leader, had to take refuge in a church after a mini-riot broke out.

This year the walkabout was meant to be with the local police, to showcase the party's new enthusiasm for law and order.

But the police superintendent who had been booked to guide Ming through Harrogate's seamy underworld, or, at least, the pedestrianised shopping area next to Betty's Tea Rooms, had been called away to a serious incident.

Ming managed to squeeze in a brief chat with Pc Paul Stephenson ("he asked about my uniform") but it did not seem the same somehow.


For those of us in search of a bit of colour, the only option was to fall back on that old stand-by - asking locals to guess the name of the Lib Dem leader.

"It's Joe something isn't it?," said one woman at the bus station.

"I don't know and I don't care. The whole lot of them want shooting," added her companion, somewhat bitterly.

"I thought it was that ginger fella," said Rob Black, a 40-year-old technician, "I know Tony Blair and David Cameron and that's about it. I don't really follow politics."

Another bystander, who emerged suddenly from the crowd, seemed rather more interested.

"I am the emperor of the world," he earnestly informed the Lib Dem leader.

'Nice fella'

The security men finally looked like they might have something to do, but the man wandered off as quickly as he had appeared, seemingly happy to have made his point.

Most people the Lib Dem leader met were, it must be said, friendly and polite.

"He seems like a nice fella," said 16-year-old army cadet Daniel Barber. "I'd vote for him. Tony Blair seems to be skating on thin ice. No one seems to agree with him."

Given the disruption that these events cause, as they snake through the town, cameramen and photographers elbowing people out of the way, everyone craning madly to catch what Sir Menzies is saying, Harrogate's level of tolerance is impressive.

Perhaps it was the sight of those two security men flanking the leader that kept things in check...

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