Challenge for Ming's successor is to find distinctive policies

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Indy Politics

There was a sense of relief in Liberal Democrat circles yesterday that Sir Menzies Campbell was removed in a bloodless rather than bloody coup. But there was also anger about the way he had been treated.

Those Liberal Democrats who blame the media for his downfall are wide of the mark. They are making the same mistake as the Labour politicians who blamed the speculation about a general election on the fevered imagination of journalists.

In both cases, the media responded to what the politicians were telling it.

Since Gordon Brown tore up his election plans, the Liberal Democrats have been unable to contain themselves. The only question was when, not if, a putsch against Sir Menzies would be mounted. He saw it coming and got out first, with his high reputation intact rather than shredded by so-called colleagues.

Although some hostile newspapers were unkind to the 66-year-old Sir Menzies, his criticism that the media as a whole indulged in ageism is misplaced. The age question was raised because his appearance and performance was of concern to voters. No one complains that the evergreen Shirley Williams, until recently the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, is 77.

Sir Menzies' internal critics are confident that a new, younger leader will reverse the alarming slide in the opinion polls. But the boost may prove more short-lived than they hope. What goes up in the polls can come down: both David Cameron and Gordon Brown saw their honeymoons come to a sudden end. In the long run, the policy agenda of the new Liberal Democrat leader will matter more than his or her personality. The biggest challenge will be to carve out a distinctive platform because New Labour and then the Tories have colonised its natural territory on the centre ground.

The Liberal Democrats have seen their long-held stance on green issues echoed by the two biggest parties, so they get little credit for it. Iraq, their unique selling point, is a diminishing asset as time passes, Tony Blair is Blair-brushed by his successor and British troops leave the country.

Yet the Liberal Democrats also have themselves to blame: their weakness in recent years has been their failure to come up with different, credible policies on health and education. I suspect they failed to reach many voters because they had surprisingly little to say on these two key issues. They talked a good game on the environment and foreign affairs, but neither issue was consistently at the top of voters' concerns.

With the Tories matching Labour's spending (and of its many policies) on "schools and hospitals", there is an opportunity here for the new Liberal Democrat leader to grasp.

The candidate with the best ideas in these critical areas should be the one the party embraces. They have two strong runners in Chris Huhne, the environment spokesman, who hopes to pick up Sir Menzies' centre-left baton, and Nick Clegg, the home affairs spokesman, who is seen as more on the centre-right. Either man would worry the big two parties.

Mr Huhne fought an impressive leadership campaign last year, running Sir Menzies close despite being a late entrant. But some Liberal Democrats worry that the 53-year-old Mr Huhne is of the same generation as Mr Brown

They might be tempted by the less experienced, but more telegenic and charismatic Mr Clegg. The Tories fear him most –not a bad recommendation. "I am backing the ABC candidate – Anyone But Clegg," one senior Tory quipped yesterday.

Electing a leader

* Nominations for the Liberal Democrat leadership opened yesterday and will close on 31 October.

* MPs require nominations from 10 per cent of the parliamentary party – seven MPs – to stand.

* They also require nominations signed by 200 rank and file members from at least 20 local parties.

* Unlike the last leadership election, MPs can only nominate one candidate.

* Ballot papers will be sent out from 21 November, with the deadline for votes on 15 December.

* The result will be published in the week beginning 16 December.

* The election will be conducted under the single transferable vote system, voters list candidates in order of preference. If no candidates get more than half the votes in the first round, the least popular are eliminated until one contender achieves more than 50 per cent.