No, the headline in yesterday’s Observer, “It’s the fibs that’ll do for the Libs,” isn’t about the Australian Liberal Party. It’s a very interesting piece by Andrew Rawnsley on the British Liberal Democrats.

Quick recap here: after their leader Charles Kennedy confessed to an
alcohol problem and resigned earlier this month, the Lib Dems had four
candidates to replace him. One of them, Mark Oaten, pulled out after
revelations that, despite being married with children, he had been
regularly having s*x with male prostitutes. Then Simon Hughes, who had
been the favoured candidate, admitted to having had homosexual
relationships, apparently contradicting his earlier denials.

With such a run of embarrassing news, it’s not surprising that the Lib
Dems’ poll ratings have nosedived. As Rawnsley says, “Lib Dem MPs are
still clutching to the hope that the damage inflicted on their party
may prove to be temporary. … The trouble is that there is a pattern
and the meltdown in the party’s polling rating suggests the voters have
started to put it together.”

Sometimes the very advantages of not being a major party also turn out
to be pitfalls. The Lib Dems, like the Greens here, get the benefit of
not having to make compromises and not having to put their policies
into practice. But they get held to a higher standard of morality as a
result: “It is shattering for the party’s morale as well as to its
public standing when everyone is provided with such vivid evidence that
their senior figures can be just as flawed and deceiving as leading
members of the other parties.”

Clearly the Lib Dems have a problem with, in Rawnsley’s words, “naivety, amateurism and a lack of seriousness”:

The most startling aspect of Mark Oaten’s behaviour was his assumption
that being a Lib Dem MP guaranteed him such total anonymity that he
could buy male prostitutes without fear of exposure. So low was his
regard for himself and his party that he seems to have thought … he
could never end up on the front page of the News of the World.

Acting leader Menzies Campbell, now favourite in the leadership
election, is probably best placed to counter this trend. Aged 64, a
knight of the realm and an MP since 1987, he projects the seriousness
that his party desperately needs. But if he fails to arrest their
downward spiral, then the Liberal Democrats will face the future with
dread.

Peter Fray

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