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Last Updated: Friday, 21 September 2007, 19:43 GMT 20:43 UK
Ming the Merciless strikes back
By Tim Reid
Westminster reporter, BBC Scotland

Sir Menzies Campbell and Nicol Stephen
Sir Menzies Campbell and Nicol Stephen discuss Lib Dem strategy
There's nothing like piling on the pressure to get a politician fighting back.

Sir Menzies Campbell is the proof of that this week after his rousing speech to his party's autumn conference.

He looked confident, sounded passionate, appeared relaxed and managed to get more than a few laughs - for the right not the wrong reasons.

It's all a far cry from this time last year when, in the same Brighton hall, he looked terrified, sounded wooden, appeared old and managed to make it look much harder than it really should have been for a man of his political experience.

After all, back then he was addressing a crowd of friendly souls who'd only just voted him into office.

Twelve months on, and he had to address an audience who weren't really sure they'd done the right thing.

He can call on energy and power from deep within himself which is quite astounding
A psychic

An hour or so before he rose to his feet to deliver what was clearly a crucial speech, journalists were given a glimpse of what he might say.

On paper it had the potential to be a good listen, though no one was really sure how it would turn out since it's all in the delivery, the performance and the timing.

Last year, Sir Ming got them all wrong - so a repeat performance was not only a possibility, but was likely to seal his political fate too.

The Lib Dem leader, however, clearly sick of this week's continual sniping and gossiping and speculation about his future and potential successors, not least in the media, came out all guns blazing.

In the end he seemed to wow his audience, most of whom left the hall believing they'd just seen the old Ming the Merciless give the leader's speech of his life.

In the cobbled Brighton lanes at the start of the week I came across a psychic packing up her bags for the day - and in the spirit of good journalism asked her what she predicted for Sir Menzies.

Nicol Stephen
Nicol Stephen spoke about a possible constitutional convention

She insisted she'd never heard of him and didn't know what he looked like - but in the spirit of good clairvoyance, went on to predict his future.

I was rather sceptical at the time but in hindsight maybe she was right, because in her words: "He can call on energy and power from deep within himself which is quite astounding. I don't think anyone was quite seen that fully manisfest itself yet." Maybe we have now....

Sir Ming's wife, Lady Elspeth, may of course deserve some of the credit for the fightback after approaching Nick Clegg, one of the so called "young Turks' in full view of the TV cameras and telling him that she wasn't sure he was being helpful.

The exchange happened after the home affairs spokesman had just told a fringe meeting that he would "probably" stand as leader, when there was a vacancy.

The leader's wife on the warpath might alone have been enough to have the dogs called off.

Notable absence

Maybe instead Sir Ming's resurrection was down to a pep talk beforehand. Certainly some of his closest allies were telling him that he needed to fight back.

Maybe it's as simple as a decent speechwriter though. Whatever it was, he'll have managed to silence his critics, at least some of them, for a bit anyway.

That's not to say that there aren't some serious questions to be asked about the policies the Lib Dems approved this week - for instance a notable absence from their leader's speech, which promised radical thinking, was any mention of the most controversial, radical new policy - a selective amnesty on illegal immigrants who've been in Britain for more than a decade. A slip? Or a rethink? Time will tell.

The Scottish Parliament
A debate has opened about greater powers for the Scottish Parliament

The week wasn't without its other missing elements. Take an important debate focused on giving more powers to the Scottish Parliament, including reform of the Barnett formula which was discussed on Wednesday.

A vital piece of policy given that the Scottish Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen spent his few days in Brighton talking up the possibility of a constitutional convention, Mark II, which would examine the idea of giving further powers to Holyrood, including some say over North Sea oil and gas revenues.

A notable absence were the views of any Scottish delegate on the matter. Conference organisers, during the constitutional reform debate, sparked a furious behind-the-scenes row after failing to call any member from north of the border.

Future debates

One senior Scottish MP described it as "symptomatic" of the "unprofessionalism" of some sections of the party and promised that organisers had been left in no uncertain terms about the enormity of the error they'd made.

A full review of how members are called in future debates is under way.

"It makes you wonder why we bother coming down to these English conferences at all," one Scottish delegate moaned.

And given that the leader's chief of staff, Ed Davey, described anywhere outside London, including Edinburgh, as "the sticks" fewer may bother making the trip next year.

Incidentally, the other two unionist parties, Labour and the Tories back in Edinburgh, felt a little bounced into their latest meeting on how to strengthen devolution and oppose independence by Mr Stephen's pronouncements on the subject.

The Scottish leader did manage to look as if he, and the Lib Dems were leading the way, leaving the other parties rather miffed.

Cosy consensus

But after Sir Ming's apparent contempt for what he describes as the 'cosy consensus' between Labour and the Tories, one that he insists the Lib Dems are going to fight against, some were left wondering what that made their talks in Scotland.

The Lib Dems say there is an important distinction. The talks between Nicol Stephen, Wendy Alexander and Annabel Goldie are based on "constructive co- operation" apparently rather than cosy consensus, they say.

But as this year's performance by Sir Ming himself proves, a year is a long time in politics. This time next year we'll look back and consider just how constructive or cosy things really are!


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