In the Ming dynasty, age is seen as an advantage

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Indy Politics

From his upright, pinstripe-suited demeanour to his forensic parliamentary performances, Sir Menzies Campbell looks and sounds every inch a party leader.

Now, with the former Olympic athlete enjoying a wave of support from around half of the Liberal Democrats' frontbench team it looks as though "Ming's moment" may have arrived.

Sir Menzies has long been known to harbour an ambition to stand for the leadership, although he steadfastly insisted that he would not mount a challenge to Charles Kennedy.

The party's 64-year-old acting leader, who served as Liberal Democrat deputy for three years, spent yesterday as quietly as he could at his Edinburgh townhouse after a frenetic day fielding at least 150 telephone calls as the drama unfolded on Saturday.

He was declining to give interviews, staying out of the fray as the fallout from Mr Kennedy's dramatic last 48 hours continued.

MPs praised Sir Menzies' experience, gravitas and ability to unite the party after a bruising battle within its parliamentary ranks. But others criticised him for his failure to offer Mr Kennedy unqualified support when the leadership crisis erupted before Christmas.

However, Sir Menzies enjoys great personal standing in the House of Commons, and is a feared and respected adversary.

The party's former leader Paddy Ashdown revealed in his diaries that Sir Menzies would have taken a cabinet seat had Tony Blair gone ahead with a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

Despite Sir Menzies' fierce critique of the Iraq war, condemning the Government for toppling Saddam Hussein "on a false prospectus", Tony Blair acknowledged his own high regard by recommending him for a knighthood in 2004. The honour, of course, did nothing to halt Sir Menzies' robust criticism of the invasion and its aftermath.

His air of authority, and his grasp of the foreign affairs brief he has held since 1997, might suggest an aloof figure. But in person Sir Menzies is a charming and affable man, whose approachable style has won him many friends.

He is said to regret his decision not to stand in the 1999 leadership race, which propelled Mr Kennedy to victory, and now has the second chance he once feared he might never see. More than two years ago he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in his hip, but has been given the all-clear after making a swift recovery.

At 64, he will be approaching 70 by the time the next general election is called, but colleagues do not claim he is too old for the job. Indeed, his age and standing are now seen as an advantage when taking on the youthful Tory leader, David Cameron.

Sir Menzies' backers claim he can unite a divided party facing a deep ideological divide between traditional left-leaning liberals and the aggressively bright crop of "Orange Book" modernisers who espouse economic liberalism rather than the tax-raising solutions of the past. A stream of leading "Orange-Book" MPs have moved to the Campbell cause, including Vince Cable, the treasury spokesman and David Laws, the work and pensions spokesman and the book's editor.

If his appeal among the party's MPs extends to a mandate among the rank and file party members, he will have to prove that his diplomatic skills extend to healing the wounds of the past few weeks and bringing a new sense of direction to a party trying to decide what it now wants to be.

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