"MING" CAMPBELL WINS MONTY PYTHON-ESQUE CAMPAIGN
Today, Britain's Liberal Democrats elected a new leader. Sir Menzies Campbell won his party's vote after one of the most surreal election races in recent memory.
Normally the 300 million of us living in North America can, and do, safely ignore the results of political party leadership contests in other countries. It's hard enough to get many of our electorate to pay attention to political battles WITHIN the US that have a direct impact on our lives. Contests in far-off lands are so far below our radar. Compound that disinterest by making it a minor party not in government - and you might wonder why it should demand a flicker of your attention.
Well two reasons actually. One is because the result may eventually have some political impact on Americans in a few years time, in terms of the support the US may be able to secure from its strongest political and military ally - Great Britain.
And secondly - less important but more enjoyable - because the race in question featured some of the most bizarre characters and situations this side of a Monty Python skit. Or an Osbourne family reunion.
The campaign included revelations of rent boys, Polish ballet dancers, rampant bisexuality, disgusting sexual perversions, straight-faced claims of being the son of Superman's mom - and it has today concluded with the party choosing as its candidate for Prime Minister a man who quite literally cannot pronounce his own name and would prefer to be known as "Ming" - as in Ming vase. (And he was the most normal candidate...)
There you see... the politics of those "darn foreigners" CAN be fun...
Britain's Liberal Democrats are Britain's third political party - and have been since they were eclipsed by the rise of the left-wing Labour Party in the 1920s. Once Labour had won its first parliamentary majority in 1922 - the once-proud Liberal Party founded in the 1850s - the home of such towering world figures as Gladstone, Lloyd George, Asquith and the young Winston Churchill - was reduced to bridesmaid status. The perpetual third wheel at the election. A home for the disaffected centre in a nation increasingly polarized between conservatism and a fuzzy, defanged socialism. And there it has remained with minor ebbs and flows for the past 90 years. A name change here and there - and nothing much more to show for its troubles.
Just like America - the first-past-the-post British electoral system is biased against third parties. Bereft of the likelihood of actually attaining power - this allows such parties to attract the oddball mavericks. America produces Ross Perot (though in fairness to Perot - who else was standing up for the rights of anti-semitic Texan pygmies?) and Jesse Ventura (who of course learned his political finesse as a bouncer for the Rolling Stones.)
Britain has its quirky Liberal Democrats. In 1979 the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was forced to resign after revelations of his wild affair with a male model who only avoided being bumped off by an assassin hired by Liberal Party apparatchiks because of the amateur hit-man's gross incompetence with guns. Thorpe was narrowly acquitted of conspiracy to murder - but the graphic admissions of "pillow-biting" and the leader's distinguishing torso "nodules" during the course of the trial tarred the whole party by association - and incidentally provided leading British satirist Peter Cook with his finest hour.
Three leaders and 25 years later, the party had revived from the scandals and was faring quite well under a boyish Scotsman named Charles Kennedy - and at the last election reached its highest tidemark of parliamentary achievement in 80 years. Alas Mr. Kennedy had a taste for the hard stuff and had become by his own belated admission a closet but raging alcoholic. Though this was overlooked during the last General Election campaign - by last Christmas those who proclaimed themselves his closest political supporters had stabbed him in the back, front and sides. He was literally leaking scotch from the wounds. In a 'veddy' British two-faced maneuver his own deputy started a private whispering campaign about Kennedy's drunken stupors - then expressed public support for his leader's courageous struggle with alcohol! Whoops! One leader down for the count - and his deputy nobly prepared to stand election to succeed him.
A former sprinter, turned lawyer, turned politician - step forward Sir Menzies Campbell - knighted by the Queen in 2003 for "services to Parliament". He'd run for Britain in the 1964 Olympics so running for office in his native Scotland was a breeze. And so, he thought, would be running for his party's leadership. After all - once your spiked running shoes have 'accidentally' hobbled the champion - that's an easy race to win...
A simple coronation was expected - but then into the fray leaped several other "Lib-Dem" parliamentarians. One of them Mark Oaten - a party spokesman on domestic affairs was just settling into his campaign stride when out came stories of some rather wild domestic affairs of his own. These involved a couple of young rent-boys who cavorted with him in a three-in-a-bed romp. Britain's News Of The World revealed that the male prostitutes were asked to "humiliate him with a bizarre sex act too revolting to describe." One of the lads - a 25 year-old Polish ballet dancer stated: "he was very specific about something special he wanted us to do to him. It's a gross act of humiliation which only a few 'punters' ask for. Quite revolting really".
Apparently his wife had not been invited to these social occasions - a major social faux pas among Liberals noted for being inclusive - and Oaten withdrew his candidacy. But not before the graphic details of his predilection for coprophilia became "factual matter." (If you don't know what for 'coprophilia' is - I recommend that you DON'T look it up...)
Next up to bat was the party's popular left-wing president - Simon Hughes. A darling of the grassroots he first came to prominence in a "by-election" (a special parliamentary election) in the early 1980s when he trounced an openly gay opponent who supported gay rights by using the subtle campaign slogan "Simon Hughes - The Straight Choice." Alas for Mr. Hughes, his own perpetual bachelor status recently came under increasing scrutiny from Britain's notorious tabloid reporters and after a week of artfully-worded denials (of the "it depends on the meaning of the word 'bi'" variety) he finally opted for a "bi-out" - in which he publicly declared that he was not gay but that he enjoyed relationships with ALL genders. Males, females and fellow Liberals... Hobbled - but not entirely out - he gamely carried on running rather than withdraw. Campaignus Interruptus.
Just as it couldn't get any richer and the party's young Turks were endorsing the afore-mentioned Menzies Campbell as their new leader-in-waiting - a dark horse entered the race. Reneging on an earlier pledge to not run - one Christopher Huhne entered the hustings. He had some major advantages: practically no one outside the party knew who he was. He'd only been a Member of Parliament for 8 months compared to his opponents' 20-plus years. And like a cross between George W. Bush and John Kerry - he had clearly married above himself - to a beautiful economist from a conveniently wealthy family. Blessed with three children and two he'd inherited from her first marriage that ended rather abruptly - he seemed to be exactly what the Liberals needed. A man with no skeletons in the closet - and too many kids running around to have time to go into the closet himself.
While Menzies Campbell fumed about this late intrusion of a man who'd personally assured him that he would not run against him - Huhne - a former financial tipster for various British newspapers who then parlayed his insider knowledge into a lucrative career as a stock-market speculator - played the perfect candidate. Media savvy with smarmy good looks, he ran the Gary Hart 1988 playbook of "new face... new ideas... new leader for the new future."
With no one seeming to ask the "Where's the beef?" question - he went from rank outsider to bookies' favorite in the space of just two weeks. And then came the inevitable revelations. When a candidate looks that good - there's usually a story behind it.
Having risen without trace - it was inevitable that those who knew him best - his colleagues from his days as a Fleet Street journalist in the 1980s - would offer to help the electorate learn more about this would-be leader.
First it transpired that though Huhne was running on a populist (for Liberal Democrats) anti-car platform (raising of auto and gas taxes) when he was a high-paid hack for the Independent newspaper in the late 1980s, he had fought hard to get the swankiest, highest gas-guzzling BMW he could lay his driving gloves on. So reported his former colleague Nick Cohen in Britain's respected Observer newspaper.
With that - the floodgates opened. Huhne was also campaigning on a platform that stressed the UK's homeless crisis and the need for more affordable housing. "Too few affordable homes are being built" he stated. It turned out that he was perfectly qualified to be talking about housing - being the owner of no less than NINE perfectly lovely ones of his own. The spoils of his post-tipster career as a savvy investor. Of course he only used four of them to live in (a London home, a country home, and vacation retreats in France and Greece). The other five were merely rental properties for personal profit. A very popular concept among left-leaning Liberals. Hoping to ease Britain's homes shortage - Huhne then sold off two of his buildings - leaving himself with a paltry seven homes.
It only got better. Curious about the insider fruits available to a financial columnist who suddenly enters the very market he was reporting on - and interested to learn about his wealth - his former colleagues in the financial world started investigating his investment portfolio. It turned out that on many of the issues he'd spoken out on to court votes among the 73,000 Liberal Party voters - he had a greater depth of understanding than the average politician.
For example, Liberal Democrats concerned about the increasing threat of clandestine surveillance systems - discovered that Huhne was one of the first and biggest investors in a company called Irisys that makes cameras that allow retail stores to discreetly film their customers with thermal imaging. Huhne holds nearly half a million US dollars worth of its stock. Those worried about the exploitation of Third World countries found out that Huhne had over US$100,000 invested in Centamin, a company mining for gold in eastern Egypt and recently in heated dispute with the Egyptian government.
As Guy Adams revealed in The Independent, a document entitled "Chris Huhne's Hypocritical Personal Share Portfolio" was circulated at Lib-Dem election meetings detailing various "unethical" companies in which Huhne had placed his millions.
"Chris Huhne is campaigning for the Lib Dem leadership on a green, carbon-neutral platform..." it read - then noted that his "shareholdings include, or have included, mining companies, oil companies, and tax shelters." All of them no-no's to the Liberal Democrat faithful.
The document listed three mining firms, one arms company, and seven tax avoidance schemes to which Huhne has subscribed. It also stated that Huhne had deleted a page from his internet site listing the interests.
Then came speculation about his involvement in the break-up of his wife's first marriage - and the crushing impact on her two very young daughters (only toddlers at the time). A journalist from the Daily Mail sensed an interesting story only to discover that the divorce records that are supposed to be on public record had mysteriously disappeared from view - as had the ousted first husband (a much respected economist from Mick Jagger's alma mater - the London School of Economics)
Yet nothing that was revealed about this Chauncey Gardiner-like figure seemed to be denting his popularity among Liberal Democrat members - and all the opinion polls had him romping home to victory. And then came his crowning moment....
A combination of Al Gore's "I was the inspiration for the Ryan O'Neal character in 'Love Story'" claim - crossed with a Walter Mitty fantasy that would be hilarious were the claimant not aspiring to become Prime Minister of Britain.
Sensing that he needed a humanizing touch - Huhne invited a reporter from Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper to one of his seven remaining homes - his US$6 million London townhouse - for a fireside chat. The topic got on to his mother - always safe terrain for a dutiful political candidate. A few choice words about her guiding light influence - and the party leadership (and his bid to become Prime Minister) would be in the bag.
But Chris Huhne managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He mentioned that as a working actress named Ann Murray, his mother had portrayed Clark Kent's mother in one of the Superman movies. Now that's a fairly remarkable footnote in anyone's life - and the journalist, Rosa Prince, naturally quizzed him about which film. Huhne she reported "is rather vague about which of the Superman films she was in."
At last! A revealing chink. Britain's journalists leaped into action. No wonder Huhne was "rather vague." Simple research showed the claim to be a total fantasy or fabrication.
The American actress Phyllis Thaxter portrayed Superman's earth-mother Martha Kent in the 1978 "Superman" movie. And a search of the movie industry bible - the Internet Movie Data Base - and of Wikipedia revealed no less than ten different actresses who have portrayed Superman's earth mom over the years in film and TV - including Annette O'Toole and Eva Marie Saint.
But the hapless Huhne's mum Ann Murray was not among them. Nor indeed did she appear to have ANY film or TV credits at all.
Three of Britain's leading newspapers The Observer, The Mail On Sunday and the Evening Standard all exposed the ludicrous lie and Huhne's campaign started to unravel.
With egg (and ego) dripping off his face - Huhne finally nailed his own coffin shut. He had given his mother the benefit of the doubt on a claim she had made to him he told his friends - adding sotto voce that she was after all 78 so she couldn't be held responsible...
One of them duly repeated this to the Mail: "It's rather awkward for Chris because he doesn't want to contradict his mother" the friend said. "People should remember that she is 78."
So, anxious to solve this riddle, the Mail visited Huhne's mother in South London and asked if her son's claim that she'd appeared in a Superman" movie as Clark Kent's mother were true. She responded: "No, I'm sure that's not right, no."
Well not even British looniest liberals approve of blaming one's mother for one's own mistakes. And simultaneously castigating the elderly for memory loss turned out to be yet another strategic error.
The leadership election results were finally declared today - and Huhne went from odds-on favorite to a poor second. The voters it seemed didn't trust a man who would lie about his mom and then blame her for the lie.
And what of the man they chose? Well today 64-year-old Sir Menzies Campbell became the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Britain. He also became the first major party leader anywhere in the world to be suffering from a peculiar variety of dyslexia known as "Ralph Fiennes Disease" - or in non-clinical language - the inability to pronounce your own name.
Actor Ralph Fiennes you may recall is apparently unable to reconcile himself with having been named after Jackie Gleason's character in "The Honeymooners" and he refuses to pronounce his first name as it reads. "My name is pronounced RAFE" he loudly proclaims. (If only we could hear Jackie Gleason introduce himself as RAFE Kramden...)
And he also insists that his last name be uttered as "FINES" (the plural of "fine") rather than the "fie-ENN-ess" that it really is.
Sir Menzies Campbell shares that affliction/affectation though fortunately to date he only insists on mispronouncing his first name. He has somehow turned "MEN-zeez" into "MING-eez" on some pretence of obscure Celtic phonetics. But never one to stand on ceremony he says that he actually prefers to be called "Ming." As in Ming vase.
Actually quite appropriate - because like the ancient party he now leads - the 64-year-old Menzies Campbell is well aged and entirely priceless...