Leading Article: The race for the Lib Dem leadership takes a new twist

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The Independent Culture
THEY'RE OFF - again! The wacky race that is the Liberal Democrats' leadership campaign takes another turn. Most of the declared runners have confirmed their candidacy - for now - and handed in their nomination papers. Only Don Foster, the party's education spokesman, has decided to do the decent thing and withdraw. His "pro-project" stance - much closer links to Labour - was unlikely to be a popular pitch. A forceful and authoritative case for the party to extend its co-operation was there to be made, but Mr Foster was not the best figure to make it. The leading contender for that cause, a man whose articulacy would have enlivened the race, was Menzies Campbell who declared himself a non-runner at an earlier stage. So we are left with no less than four candidates who are sceptical about closer links with Labour - Simon Hughes, David Rendel, Malcolm Bruce and Jackie Ballard - and one candidate, Charles Kennedy, who remains equivocal.

Mr Foster said that he made his decision to withdraw after receiving assurances from Mr Kennedy about the continuance of links between the party and Labour. Mr Kennedy now has the backing of a number of those in favour of a closer relationship with Mr Blair - Mr Foster and Mr Campbell, of course, but also Lord Jenkins and Lord Holme. For those familiar with the internal politics of the Liberal Democrats, that is a clear enough sign that Mr Kennedy is, in the chilling phrase of one of the party's eminences, "coalitionable". In politics, no less than in other walks of life, one judges a man by his friends. True, Mr Kennedy has others close to him who are less keen on promoting the historic task of reuniting the progressive forces of the centre left. And he is, probably, enough of his own man not to be pushed about by grandees, no matter how weighty their authority. But the concern remains. And that concern will persist until Mr Kennedy becomes more candid about his agenda. We know that he is in favour of social justice, a "can do" society and a better quality of life (aren't we all?). And, from his appearances on programmes such as Through the Keyhole we may know what Mr Kennedy keeps in his wardrobe - but we are still unclear about what lies in his political closet.

Mr Kennedy may be ahead, but he is not unstoppable. Simon Hughes is a good speaker and is performing well on the hustings. David Rendel and Malcolm Bruce are hanging in there, if only just. Jackie Ballard, though, may well benefit from being the only candidate to show any awareness of the scale of the gravest task facing all British politicians today - dealing with the charge that "you are all the same". Her thoughtfulness, freshness of approach and instinctive liberalism suggest that she would be in a better position than most to provide distinctive leadership. This remains a very open contest.

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