Mr Blair can help the Lib Dems - but do they want to be helped?

The Lib Dem leadership contest has been a dismal affair, doing little to excite even the party's members

A BALLOT that draws almost unnoticed to a close today could exercise a profound influence on the shape of 21st-century British politics. But you wouldn't think it. The Liberal Democrat leadership contest has been a dismal affair, doing little to excite the 90,000 members of the party, let alone the voters at large.

The leadership contest was an opportunity to resolve the competition between two real and alternative visions of the party's future direction, a choice that no amount of flummery about unity can wish away. And the huge compensating gain would have been a timely raising of the party's profile at just the moment at which it most needed to be raised, to show that the party still mattered after the retirement of Paddy Ashdown - the one man who, frequently defying gravity to do it, had proved himself capable of keeping it in the public eye. Instead it became an introverted, unchallenging and rather unpolitical contest about which of two admittedly articulate and telegenic men should inherit the Ashdown mantle.

This has been largely due to the depressingly risk-averse campaign waged by the front-runner, Charles Kennedy. On the central strategic question of whether he proposes to maintain and enhance the relationship with Tony Blair's Labour Party, Kennedy has been, in turns, cautiously positive, enigmatic, and negative. Some of this is understandable; all the pressure on him, as the candidate most favoured by those who support continuation of the bonds with Labour forged by Ashdown and Blair, came from the opposite direction. Both the candidates who would have put the case for co-operation without equivocation, Menzies Campbell and Don Foster, decided not to run. The contest might have been much more interesting if one of them had. But, in the event, it meant that there was much less incentive for Kennedy to compete for votes on that side of the argument than among the supporters of oppositionalism, represented in varying degrees by all four of the other candidates.

At this point, however, a further argument against making the case for co-operation is brought into play, at once less tactical, more fundamental, and almost wholly spurious.

This is that the "Project", as it is called in the ugly jargon of the times, has simply run out of road. Why not pocket the (extremely significant) gains, such as a share in the government of Scotland, and proportional representation in the Euro-elections - and prepare to exploit what must eventually be the unpopularity of the Government? The Project, in other words, is simply out of fashion, on Labour's side as much as among the Liberal Democrats.

That is not at all how Blair sees it. He wants the links to continue beyond the retirement of his friend, and despite the quite vociferous opposition of some in his own party. He has, by all accounts, watched the Lib Dem contest with quite close attention for a man with a lot else on his mind, and some frustration. He would not even have been averse to intervening in it, had Paddy Ashdown not (sensibly) advised him not to. The remarkable fact about Blair's attitude to the Liberal Democrats is that he still wants their co-operation more than he needs it. He has not been diverted from his vision of what he believes could still be a liberal or radical, rather than a Conservative, 21st century.

The Project, in other words, finds itself not so much at the end of the road, as in a no man's land. If, as still seems likely, Charles Kennedy is the victor on Monday, the first, no doubt private, meeting between him and the Prime Minister will be crucial. Naturally, the Liberal Democrats are entitled to look for signals, not so far forthcoming, of further movement on the constitutional agenda; they would be failing in their duty if they did not continue to press for PR for local government, for a commitment not to make the Lords an entirely appointed quango, and for liberalising a Freedom of Information Bill that is not yet worthy of the name.

But they would have to bring something to the party, too. The joint cabinet committee which Ashdown and Blair set up as a substitute for coalition needs fresh work to nourish it. Is it sane, to cite just one example, that there is no joint work on pensions, when the Liberal Democrat Steve Webb, one of the country's acknowledged social security experts, is able and willing to take part? More significantly still, it would need Kennedy - if he wins - to start talking, as Blair does, the language of co-operative politics shortly afterwards. And he could appoint an economic spokesman who is less Labour-unfriendly than Malcolm Bruce.

The temptation, reinforced by Kennedy's failure to demand a mandate for such co-operation during the campaign, will be to do none of this and instead take up the path of outright opposition, largely from a left-wing stance somewhat akin to old Labour. But leaving aside the persuasive argument that the Liberal Democrats have much more chance of achieving their most cherished goals - like PR for the Commons - from inside the tent than from outside it, what will this mean tactically? Is this going to win or hold seats in areas such as the South-west, where the Tories are the main competitors?

Which complements a larger, if unpalatable point: too few Liberal Democrats have yet appreciated how many of their 46 seats they owe to the fact that Labour supporters voted Liberal Democrat tactically (and vice versa) because they wanted to get rid of the Tories and because the two parties were not attacking each other. Many activists, for whom the leadership contest has been largely played, want an end to co-operation; Liberal Democrat voters, the most neglected element in the contest, have been proved to be wholly in favour of it.

While Blair wants co-operation, moreover, he is not exactly a supplicant. If the new leader rejects it, the Prime Minister will not, I suspect, be slow in challenging them, arguing that the Liberal Democrats had the chance of co-operative politics but decided to abandon it. If he cannot get their co-operation, he will seek to appropriate their voters.

Kennedy has the intelligence to see all this. He also has that rare and woefully undervalued quality in politics: wit - coupled with a capacity not to take himself too seriously. But there is another reason why he should win.

Simon Hughes has fought the clearer and more effective campaign; if he does not win, he will have earned a senior place in Kennedy's inner group. There are even those who think that, on the "Nixon recognises Red China" principle, Hughes might countenance more co-operation than he has admitted. Perhaps. But by promising that "I want speculation about closer links with Labour to end the day I'm elected", he has defined the best reason for voting for Kennedy. This is a slogan for holding a majority on Sheffield City Council. It is not a recipe for real power.

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