Ming: 'A' for effort, 'E' for attainment
This week's ICM/Guardian poll wouldn't have made happy reading in Cowley Street, headquarters of the Lib Dems.
Ming's party have had a turbulent year following the removal of Charles Kennedy and Ming's subsequent election (not forgetting Mark Oaten's problems inbetween). But to be 4 points down compared with the last poll (at 17%) is pretty disastrous.
Ming himself accounts for a large part of the problem, but not all of it. Welsh Assembly member Peter Black has pointed the finger, arguing that "Ming has made little impact with the public at large", a fairly substantial criticism from an elected member of his own party.
But Peter is wrong when he says "if things go wrong then there is nobody else to blame". Because the party as a whole is partly culpable for its poll ratings.
While Cameron's Tories have managed to do very well without actually announcing any policies, the Lib Dems haven't managed to pull off the same trick. This is mainly because they don't appear to have any fixed principles with which to challenge the government. The Conservatives have carved out a 'message' without having to set anything in stone. Ming meanwhile is too involved in sorting out his own house to be able to set out what his party is.
The Lib Dems are an awkward coalition struggling to come to terms with the continued obsession with left–right politics in which they don't really fit. There's the right–wing 'Orange Book' group and the more socially conscious lefties in the party. Each is determined that the party needs to move in their direction to succeed, and in one way they're correct. Because for the Lib Dems, the middle ground isn't working.
Labour and the Conservatives are set to engage in a game of "who can best mimic the enemy" until the next election, where they set out policies which are remarkable alike, if not plain stolen.
So the Lib Dems need to be the real opposition, a term which they bandy about but don't seem able to fully grasp. While there is a fair amount of consensus in Britain at the moment, there's probably quite a strong current in the press and in current opinion which believes there's too much government. It's the traditional U.S. Republican stance, and one that is well suited to the Liberalism of the Liberals.
This is an area which fits well with many of their policies: ID Cards especially, diplomacy over military engagement, scrapping the council tax etc.
It would sit well with much of the public, and potentially out–Tory the Tories, without necessarily adopting the characteristics of the 'nasty party'.
There's no ground left to be fought for on the centre of British politics. For the Lib Dems to stand a chance, they need to have a stand and a message. In some ways they have it already, but haven't made it in the terms which would be attractive to the British public.
Ming probably isn't the right man to present this message, but until the party comes up with some idea of what it's about, it won't be able to find a leader who can do much better.