The front-runner in the race to be the Liberal Democrats' next leader has admitted that his spat with his rival has damaged the party's image, as a previous leader warned that their "fractiousness" could propel his colleagues into years of division.
Nick Clegg acknowledged that his dispute with Chris Huhne over a dossier that branded him "Calamity Clegg" was "an ugly incident" that added nothing to the debate. But, at the start of the most important week of the campaign, he attacked his rival's policies – and accused him of indifference to the decline of manufacturing in the North.
Mr Clegg's outburst came in an interview with The Independent on Sunday as the former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy criticised both candidates for not putting forward a "clear message". In his reaction to the dispute on Channel 4 News today, he added: "It just looks like a bit of a squabble about nothing."
Mr Kennedy added: "If things are not quite to our liking in, say, two years' time, then we could have another leadership election which, I think, could be very unwise indeed."
Mr Clegg, the home affairs spokesman, protests that he has a clear idea of where he wants to take the Lib Dems – starting with a pledge to change the face of his party by "training" more black and ethnic minority candidates to stand at future elections.
Mr Clegg revealed last night that he did not want to rebuild the Liberal Democrats in his own image.
"It's not great that the party has a choice between two blokes who went to the same school, then Oxbridge and became Euro MPs," Mr Clegg admitted. "We need... to change the people who are representing us. I have already spoken to donors about setting up an academy to train candidates."
It is just one of a catalogue of ideas that Mr Clegg rattles off as if by heart, the sense of breathlessness intensified by the fact that he is in the back of a cab on his way to his next national speaking engagement. Danish-style devolution, Dutch-style schools: Mr Clegg, who speaks five languages and is married to a Spanish lawyer, has used his experience of life outside the UK to good effect.
The raft of new policies will, he hopes, allow the Lib Dems to double their present standing in Parliament within two elections.
But, while he can claim the overwhelming support of Lib Dem MPs, MEPs and councillors, his ideas are taking their time to grab the imagination of the bulk of the party. That televised spat with Mr Huhne has, he admits, got in the way.
"It was ugly and... it didn't help us or the party," he admits. "But Chris has apologised and I accepted his apology. Finished."
His response to the episode was forgiving, and it is that quality which makes many Lib Dems suspect he is too nice for the job.
Niceness is not, he insists, "incompatible with toughness", and as if to prove his point he moves on to a brief deconstruction of Mr Huhne's programme.
"There are all sorts of differences between us," Mr Clegg said. "I've taken a much harder line on ID cards, which Chris, with his background in the City, won't do. And, as a southern MP, he has said he doesn't mind so much what happens to manufacturing in the North."
He almost carries it off. Only a little later he emphasises that he doesn't mean to criticise his rival. In fact, if he wins, Mr Clegg will "absolutely, definitely" offer Mr Huhne a place among his spokespeople. "He'll be found a big place," he promises.