Congratulations on your election as president of the Liberal Democrats. I look forward to passing on the baton at this week's party conference in Brighton. Welcome to the role once described to me, by the then Scottish Nationalist MP, Jim Sillars, as being but a heartbeat away from political impotence.

It is, of course, a good deal more than that. This week it's not back-to-basics, but back to Brighton. And back to business. You will have experienced the torture which has ruined my last four summer holidays. It's called your conference speech. You have to say something different from the party leader, but not contradictory. And as the party leader is notorious for drafting and redrafting his thoughts up until the 59th minute of the 11th hour, this can be tricky.

But a far worse ordeal awaits you at the Glee Club, the end-of-conference knees-up-cum-sketch-show, where you are expected to perform. Step forward all-singing, all-dancing Maclennan. In fact, as you come from a family of thespians (like your Tory opposite number), you're likely to wow them in the aisles.

After the conference, part of you becomes chairman of the board for Lib Dem plc. Part of you will be the constituency MP for the party membership. You will be called upon to put a brave, upbeat face on whatever party calamity may be in the news. The temptation, if you're not careful, is to find reasons to be cheerful for almost everything.

Thus a by-election lost deposit becomes a 'useful basis upon which to build'. A fatal party split is explained away as 'an ongoing constructive internal discussion among close friends and bosom buddies'. Before you know where you are, in that looking-glass world, crowd disorder at a boxing match becomes 'exuberance'.

A useful rule of thumb is that when things are going well you see the party leader on the box saying so; when the opposite is the case the president gets wheeled out. I still see the words Tower Hamlets in my sleep. Paddy is good to work with, although he has a distressing tendency to favour breakfast meetings. I found he responded better to memos - perhaps a reflection of military training? - than to cosy chit-chats.

As this parliament moves into its decisive second half, your position will be pivotal - as the person who will have a key hand on the tiller in the run-up to the general election. You bring the authority of nearly three decades parliamentary experience.

Equally, as the Blair honeymoon comes to a close and Labour is assessed in a harsher light, it will be to our advantage to have someone who can speak insightfully of having served as a minister in the last Labour government. Having covered Home Office issues for us you also possess a rather good working knowledge of the new Labour leader, and have not shied away from crossing swords with him in the past.

As one Scot to another, I wish you the best of British - or should that be European?

(Photograph omitted)

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