Ming left frustrated and irritated
SIR Menzies Campbell, who dramatically quit as Liberal Democrat leader, has spoken for the first time about his frustration at the obsession with his age.
He said continued concentration on the issue was diverting attention from messages the party needed to get across.
In an interview for the BBC, he also hinted strongly that he would lay bare his experiences - and the events leading up to the ousting of Charles Kennedy - in his memoirs.
Speaking from his Edinburgh home, Sir Menzies, 66, revealed why he quit, emphasising that it had been his decision.
"We have got an obsession with age in this country...for some people it's a cause of some anxiety and for many people it's a sense of disappointment," he said.
"It became pretty clear to me, Gordon Brown having called off the election, that it was going to be very hard to get out from under that - that the sort of development of policy, the sort of presentation of policy, which is necessary was going to be continually difficult simply because the kind of default story in the minds of so many people is the question of my age.
"I took the view very firmly that this was not going to be in the interests of the party and that, if I were to step down, it had to be now so that a new leader would have the opportunity of bedding himself or herself in."
The fixation with his age made him feel "irritated and frustrated".
"Irritated because of a quite extraordinary concentration on trivia which seems to surround leadership; people write articles about what kind of socks I wear. Frustrated at not getting the opportunity to lead our party in a general election, where I think our policies and our principles and our values would be right at the centre of the political agenda."
The former lawyer and Olympic sprinter also hinted that he would consider a job in a Brown cabinet. When asked what job he would like, he said that he would not comment on hypothetical situations, but added that his interests were foreign affairs and defence.
He insisted he had not been forced out and no-one had asked him to stand down.
"I had no sense that there were people wanting to move against me. If I had decided to go on and anyone had tried to move against me then I would have dealt with them pretty sharply," he said.
"This was my decision. I took this decision. This was my conclusion, based upon my assessment and also based upon my understanding of what my responsibility to the party has got to be."
Responding to whether he would support a comeback from Charles Kennedy, Sir Menzies said it was a matter for the former leader but he pointed out there was a famous saying that "famous boxers never come back".
Sir Menzies will now focus on finishing and updating his memoirs. He also confirmed that the chapters would include his resignation, and that of his predecessors, while promising to be as "objective" about both as possible.
He played down the personal distress that the departure from office may have caused him.
"I never expected to be party leader.
"Five years ago, I had a serious illness," he said in a rare mention of the cancer he battled.
Friends of Sir Menzies and campaigners also pointed to the blatant ageism he had suffered.
Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, earlier in the day said he had been about to warn Sir Menzies that he faced a struggle if he tried to continue.
"I was going to say to him, 'Look, Ming, it is going to be quite tough if you continue to an election in 2009, but one thing is clear and that is when you go, go on your own terms and go when you want to go'. He beat me to it," Lord Ashdown told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Williams told the programme: "
It is quite extraordinary to me. Churchill was far older than Ming is. Nobody complained about his age but they would now."
Contenders line up to become third Lib Dem leader in two years
THE bitter race to succeed Sir Menzies Campbell as leader of the Liberal Democrats was already under way yesterday, less than 24 hours after he quit the post.
Although rivals Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are not expected to launch their campaigns formally until later this week, their respective supporters were already rallying behind the contenders.
Mr Huhne, 53, risked accusations of disloyalty after he was first out of the traps to declare that his campaign would be launched "imminently".
Sources close to the environment spokesman deny he had been preparing for months, pointing out that his campaign was more prepared because he had narrowly lost to Sir Menzies in the contest 19 months ago.
Meanwhile, Mr Clegg, tipped as the favourite to succeed Sir Menzies, played down his ambition yesterday. Greeted by reporters in an "impromptu" ambush outside his cottage and with his wife, Miriam, at his side, the 40-year-old said: "It's a big decision for myself. It's been very sudden. I'd like to talk to close friends."
It is believed that Sir Menzies will declare his support for Mr Clegg.
Mr Clegg and Mr Huhne, who both attended the prestigious Westminster public school, faced a backlash from some MPs for being too keen to start electioneering hours after Sir Menzies's resignation.
At party conference last month, Mr Clegg, the home affairs spokesman, confirmed he would have a shot at the leadership once Sir Menzies stood down.
His remarks were immediately followed by briefings from Mr Huhne, comparing Mr Clegg to a "Michael Heseltine figure", a reference to the Tory plotter's botched attempt to succeed Margaret Thatcher.
Another contender for the top job is Steve Webb, a front-bencher and the mastermind behind the party's manifesto, who is on the left of the party.
Mr Webb, the MP for Northavon, told The Scotsman: "I have already talked to colleagues and am considering standing."
He added that "it's clear I have enough support to stand, but Nick and Chris have got a head start on me".
One or more female candidates, such as Susan Kramer, the London MP whose seat is being targeted by Tory billionaire Zac Goldsmith, are also expected to stand. Vince Cable, who steps into the role of acting leader, has also not ruled out throwing his hat in the ring.
Speculation mounted last night that Charles Kennedy, the former Lib Dem leader who was forced out over his drinking, would also be keen for a go at the top job. But insiders told The Scotsman that, while Mr Kennedy was a favourite with the grassroots, he was seen as too high-risk this far out from a 2009-10 general election.
WHAT NOW FOR PARTY?
THE Liberal Democrats are in the unenviable position of finding their third leader in two years.
Just 21 months ago, Charles Kennedy left office after concerns over his drinking forced colleagues to confront him.
After two months of jockeying for position, the party elected Sir Menzies Campbell.
Just 19 months later, the party is again searching for the individual it hopes can provide a solution to its electoral woes.
Dr Vince Cable, the party's deputy leader, has taken over the top role temporarily and will stand in at high-profile appearances, such as at Prime Minister's Questions.
Nominations opened yesterday and will close on 31 October. The result will be announced in mid-December.
Party rules dictate that anyone wanting to stand for the leadership must garner the support of at least 10 per cent of its MPs and 200 ordinary members from at least 20 constituencies.
Ballot papers will be sent out from 21 November and must be returned by 15 December. The result will be announced early the following week.
A party spokesman said a precise date could not be given because the election would be conducted on a single transferable vote system, meaning there could be several rounds of voting as candidates are knocked out until one achieves more than 50 per cent of the ballot.
All the party's existing 55,000 members have a vote, but the party expects membership numbers to rise because of the election. In the last contest, more than 70,000 people voted.
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