Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 13:21 UK

Sir Menzies and the age question

By Robert Orchard
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The Age of Ming

Menzies Campbell giving keynote speech to Lib Dem Conference 2006
Sir Menzies Campbell spent less than two years as Lib Dem party leader

Sir Menzies Campbell lasted less than two years as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Many believe he was hounded out of office by a media obsessed with his age and appearance.

The former Olympic athlete protests that, after his admittedly shaky start in the Commons, views were formed in the press that never wavered.

His background should have been an image-maker's dream: born into a modest Glasgow family with a hard-drinking father, Campbell became in turn an Olympic athlete, a successful barrister, and a widely-admired MP respected across party lines. He even defeated cancer.

So how did it all go so wrong when Sir Menzies - or Ming as he's usually known - stepped in to rescue the battered Liberal Democrat party from crisis and turmoil after Charles Kennedy was forced to admit his drink problem and resign as party leader?

Sir Ming's fatal flaw, apparently, was to be 64 years old. As he tells me, "No cartoon ever appeared without me looking totally bald and derelict, with a Zimmer!"

"Kicked to death"

Sir Ming seemed to embody much-needed respectability for his party but senior Lib Dems like Lord Steel and Vince Cable believe his impeccable dress, unfailing courtesy, the almost-courtly manner of an Edwardian gentleman, may have been a handicap as party leader.

Lord Steel remarks candidly that he "acted old, he looked old, he looked Establishment" while Vince Cable says Sir Ming was "kicked to death" because of his age or his manner, calling it "very unfair and very damaging".

From the outset, the press coverage of the new Lib Dem leader had an ominous ageist tone to it.

"The new leader is guilty of the most dreadful of all modern political crimes. He is not young," said The Financial Times. "His age is, sadly, also a factor," claimed The Independent.

Portraying Ming in a wheelchair, with a Zimmer frame, with his teeth out, as a skull wasn't very helpful at all…
Puja Darbari
Former press secretary

His clothes and dress sense were closely analysed… even how he kept his socks up.

Sir Ming describes how he worked secretly to improve his performance at Prime Minister's Questions, being put through his paces in a mock-up of the Commons chamber: learning not to use notes and even to take off his glasses - both to counter the press caricature of him and to find something to do with his hands.

His press secretary at the time, Puja Darbari, recalls that every interview included questions about Sir Ming's age. But it was the cartoons and political sketches which did the real damage.

One cartoonist in particular - Steve Bell of The Guardian - caused the leader's minders enormous problems, she says:

"Portraying Ming in a wheelchair, with a Zimmer frame, with his teeth out, as a skull wasn't very helpful at all… it had an absolutely enormous impact."

Age or experience?

Steve Bell now freely acknowledges that he was guilty of "naked ageism". His justification: "Ming was making great play of his senior statesmanship, which I think was a bit rich."

Behind the scenes, there was growing concern inside the Lib Dems. When Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair, Labour's bounce in the polls caused more jitters in party ranks.

Sir Ming was invited to a meeting with prominent Lib Dem peers. It turned out to be an ambush, with Shirley, now Lady, Williams revealing what she told him to his face.

May 1941 - born in Glasgow
October 1964 - competes in Tokyo Olympics
June 1987 - becomes Liberal MP for North East Fife
November 2002 - diagnosed with cancer
February 2003 - becomes Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems
March 2006 - elected leader of the Liberal Democrats
October 2007 - announces his resignation as party leader

"I confess frankly I thought it was going to be impossible to sustain Ming as leader without great damage to the party. I didn't think he could beat this determined media picture of him," she said

Sir Ming fought back, acknowledging at the 2007 LibDem conference soon after that, yes, "age could be a factor" at the next general election.

"You bet it will because I'm going to make it one… because with age comes experience and with experience comes judgement."

The press loved it, with The Times summing up the mood by concluding: "The leadership issue is now essentially settled."

Just how wrong could they be? Despite stoking election fever as the autumn wore on, the new prime minister Gordon Brown suddenly appeared to lose his nerve and announced there'd be no snap election.

That changed everything.

Monstrous prejudice

The Lib Dem leader would have been 69 if the election was delayed till the last possible moment in 2010. More and more questions on The Age of Ming would drown out the party's efforts to get a hearing on any other issue, he realised.

Sir Ming took everyone by surprise and resigned, leaving his deputy, Vince Cable, in temporary charge. Despite being another balding, sixty-something, the party's economics guru fancied a run at the top job himself.

But - scarred by Sir Ming's unhappy experience - Liberal Democrat MPs wanted someone much younger. Cable tells me he was "very cross" but knuckled down to the job he was doing. Oh, what might have been?

Sir Ming Campbell's surprise resignation proved, according to The Sun, that there was "No room for pensioners" in today's cut-throat politics. The Mirror thought he was "an Edwardian gentleman in the internet age".

Political sketchwriter Ann Treneman of The Times, had been a regular tormentor, her memorable descriptions of Sir Ming ranging from "a wrinkled old turtle" to "looking as if he had just escaped from a care home".

But she insists his problem wasn't just his age, arguing that he didn't have the confidence, communication skills, or "the zing" required of a modern party leader.

Nick Clegg replaced Menzies Campbell in 2007
Sir Menzies Campbell was replaced by Nick Clegg, over 20 years younger

However Lord Steel, the former Liberal leader, says the ageist prejudice encountered by his friend was "monstrous". Certainly, relentless attacks ridiculing a party leader for being black, gay, or disabled would surely be inconceivable and probably illegal.

As for Sir Menzies Campbell himself, he shrugs off suggestions that he should have tried to change his image. And he says society must come to terms with the fact that everyone is living longer, and many older people still have much to contribute.

But he insists he's not angry at those remorseless cartoon caricatures that did so much damage:

"I am what I am. I have been enormously lucky. I feel no sense of bitterness or injustice. Politics is a rough old game you have to be ready to take the rough when it's handed out. I did and I'm perfectly content."

The Age of Ming - BBC Radio 4 at 11am on Tuesday 23 June.

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