How `Chat Show Charlie' got serious to beat Hughes, the activists' hero Hughes

"FROM HERE on in, it's downhill all the way." True to his "Chat show Charlie" reputation, Charles Kennedy's first words on becoming leader of the Liberal Democrats were bound to get a belly laugh.

At the end of a hectic eight-week leadership contest criss-crossing the country, with 21 hustings meetings and countless campaign events, the party was clearly in need of a joke.

The gruelling campaigns of what was initially six, and then five, different leadership candidates, have left some activists tired and bruised. Most were simply relieved that it was all over.

After the "phoney war" that followed Paddy Ashdown's decision to stand down in January, the real race kicked off in June with a frenzy of activity and flamboyance rarely seen in the normally staid world of Liberal Democrat politics. Helicopters were hired to whizz candidates across the British Isles, large pleasure boats glided down the Thames and no photo-opportunity was left to a rival.

After the announcement by Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, that he was not going to stand in the contest, some Kennedy supporters predicted a "walkover" for their man.

Attacked for being a wit rather than a wonk, Mr Kennedy's frequent appearances on TV shows such as Have I Got News For You? led his critics to call him a lightweight.

Unashamed about his lighter touch - "I make no apologies for the fact that I'm a fully paid up member of the human race" he said time and again - he was forced, nevertheless, to appear more sober and statesmanlike.

Yet, it became clear that Simon Hughes's popularity among activists was much greater than many pundits, not to mention his rivals for the "left wing" mantle, had anticipated.

A darling of the party's activists who is regularly mobbed at conference by admiring septuagenarians, Mr Hughes' years of experience finally counted ahead of Jackie Ballard and David Rendel.

It became clear that Mr Kennedy had to soften his line on closer links with Labour and advocate a much stronger approach to social justice.

As the results were announced yesterday at the Royal Commonwealth Club in London, Baroness Maddock, the party's president, claimed that the contest had unified the candidates rather than divided them. To prove the point, all five were given the chance to pose as victors during a rather bizarre dress rehearsal for the election announcement at noon. In a classic example of Liberal Democrat niceness, each was given their two minutes of fantasy.

Certainly, the contest proved a boon to the party's profile among the wider population, but it did expose the deep differences between those such as Mr Hughes who wanted to restrict the Lib-Lab "project" and those in favour of increased co-operation.

The "projectiles", as Don Foster's supporters became known before he pulled out of the race, were given a rough ride and the Hughes, Ballard and Rendel campaigns may all have benefited from opposition to the Government.

Having pushed hard for the painful merger of his SDP with the Liberals in the late 1980s, however, it is clear that Mr Kennedy has no problem in working with other parties and is instinctively in favour of teaming up with Labour on a range of issues.

With 28,000 Liberal Democrat members having voted for other candidates in the first round, equivalent to more than 55 per cent of the total, the narrowness of his victory means his options are clearly limited.

On the key question posed by Tony Blair: "Can I do business with Charles Kennedy?" Britain's newest and youngest party leader, at 39, clearly wants to answer with a qualified "Yes".

But if he cannot persuade his colleagues closer co-operation is in their interests, it may indeed be "downhill all the way" for the king of the chat shows.

Charles Kennedy

39-year-old MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West since 1983, formerly the party's agriculture spokesman. Will continue close links with Labour, but is more critical of Tony Blair's domestic policies, particularly on social justice

Prospects at outset: A gameshow regular, he always had the highest public profile

Prospects now: Will have a big task in convincing left-wingers that he is no lightweight

Simon Hughes

48-year-old MP for Southwark and Bermondsey since 1983, formerly health spokesman. Wants more radical policies with greater power to grass roots, sceptical of closer ties with Labour

Prospects at outset: Many wrote him off for being too far left to be a serious contender

Prospects now: After an impressive campaign, the new leader will have to keep Mr Hughes aboard to keep the party faithful happy

Malcolm Bruce

54-year-old MP for Gordon since 1983, formely treasury spokesman. In favour of devolving economic policy, did not rule out closer links with the Government

Prospects at outset: Worthy but dull. Surprise decision to fight his best man Kennedy

Prospects now: A good third place after a persuasive campaign. Result will have boosted his ego after Tony Blair called him a Teletubby

Jackie Ballard

46-year-old MP for Taunton since 1997, strong links with the grass roots, passionate performer with sympathy for the underdog

Prospects at outset: After rapturous campaign launch with balloons and T-shirts for supporters, many thought she had an outside chance as the "Snow White among the dwarfs"

Prospects now: Inexperience shone through and Snow White lost out to the Prince

David Rendel

47-year-old MP for Newbury since 1993, formerly social security spokesman, the "activists' choice" in touch with Liberal instincts, sceptical about the Lib-Lab "Project".

Prospects at outset: Cruelly dismissed as having the charisma of a "sip of warm water", was never regarded as having a chance

Prospects now: Critics were right. Not even bearded activists could save him from coming last