Clegg wins knife-edge vote to succeed Campbell as Liberal Democrat leader

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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg, the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, will tomorrow announce the core of his new slimmed-down front-bench team in an effort to gain maximum momentum following his dramatic election victory yesterday.

After becoming the party's third leader in two years, Mr Clegg promised to bring new ambition to the Lib Dems. He squeezed ahead of his rival Chris Huhne, the party's environment spokesman, by just 511 votes 20,988 to 20,477 the closest leadership race since Denis Healey beat Tony Benn for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981.

Mr Clegg laid out his vision of a "people's politics", and promised to hold regular town hall meetings with voters. He insisted he would spend a day each week campaigning outside London.

The 40-year-old former journalist will tomorrow begin to map out his top team, which will comprise around six senior front-benchers. Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman, will keep his post, while Mr Huhne was promised a "big job" in his rival's new team after scooping nearly half the vote in a tight campaign.

Norman Lamb, the party's health spokesman, is expected to be given a senior role, as is David Laws, its children's spokesman. Julia Goldsworthy, the high-flying shadow chief secretary to the Treasury is also likely to be promoted, along with Jeremy Browne, a Home Office spokesman who has been a key Clegg ally.

Mr Clegg is understood to believe that the current setup of a 28-strong shadow cabinet in a 55-strong front bench is unnecessary. Yesterday Mr Clegg sought to draw a line under the at times acrimonious leadership campaign, telling Mr Huhne: "We have been rivals in this contest. From today we are colleagues again. I look forward to working closely with him for the good of liberalism in Britain."

Both camps were visibly shocked at the closeness of yesterday's result. There was no official recount but officials did check the "bundles" of ballots before declaring the winner.

Allies of Mr Huhne were anxious to scotch any hint of disunity, insisting "that's the result and that's that".

Yesterday Mr Clegg said he aimed to win voters disillusioned with Labour and the Conservatives "mutating" into one other. He said: "This is an unprecedented time of opportunity for liberalism in Britain. If we are to grab this opportunity, my party will need to change.

"We must start acting like the growing national political movement that we are. More professional, more united, more ambitious."

He said he wanted a system "where political life is not a Westminster village freak show but open, accessible and helpful in people's everyday lives", adding that he "simply refused to believe that the only alternative to a clapped-out Labour Government is a Conservative Party that has no answers on the big issues".

MPs welcomed the result yesterday. One Clegg supporter said: "We were languishing in the polls... [but] I feel more positive now than in a long time."

Mr Clegg's predecessor, Sir Menzies Campbell, said: "Nick Clegg has the drive, imagination and energy to take this party forward. The torch has passed to a new political generation and he is one of the most well-qualified people I can think of to take that torch forward."

Former leader Charles Kennedy added: "The great thing now, given what happened... with the election that never was, is that we now have a leader who is coming in at the mid-term of a parliament, who has the time and the space to establish himself over 18 months or two years. That is ideal."