Meet the real leader of the Liberal Democrats

Hundreds of postal votes that arrived late would have meant Chris Huhne won the race to succeed Menzies Campbell

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has hardly had the easiest of weeks.

It began with the toe-curling revelation in a magazine interview that he had slept with "up to 30 women".

And it ends with new claims that he may not, in fact, be the real leader of the Lib Dems after all.

According to one authoritative account of the leadership contest last December, Chris Huhne would be Lib Dem chief were it not for hundreds of ballot papers being held up by the Christmas post.

Mr Clegg beat his rival by just 511 votes out of more than 41,000 party members in one of the closest-run races in political history.

Yet as many as 1,300 postal votes arrived after the deadline of 15 December – and an unofficial check of the papers showed that Mr Huhne had enough of a majority among them to hand him victory. The extraordinary claim could spark demands for a rerun from Mr Huhne's supporters.

The secret dispute around the result has not surfaced until now because the outcome was not officially challenged by Mr Huhne. No official count took place and the ballot papers were thrown away.

But the party gossip machine has fired up again after Mr Clegg's lacklustre first 100 days, culminating in his admission to GQ that he had had sex with "no more than 30 women" – earning him the nickname "Cleggover".

Ballot papers were sent out to party members on Saturday 17 November, and had to be returned by Saturday 15 December, before the result was announced on Tuesday 18 December.

Thousands decided to leave it late and watch how the contest developed because both men were so closely matched. A rogue briefing document from the Huhne camp describing his rival as "Calamity Clegg" may have contributed to a late surge for their man.

The ballot closed on Saturday the 15th, but, according to a source, around 1,300 votes came in late on Monday the 17th.

Lib Dem elections chief Lord Rennard, the returning officer for the contest, asked both contenders if they wanted the late votes to be counted. Mr Huhne indicated maybe they should, but Mr Clegg refused and his rival did not press the issue. Another insider confirmed the claims, but insisted the "rules were the rules", adding: "I suppose Chris knows that Nick knows that Chris knows he could be leader."

MPs were aghast that once again a Lib Dem leadership contest risked being branded a farce.

When told of the details, one Lib Dem MP, referring to the "hanging chads" fiasco of the 2000 US presidential election, said: "Oh God. They are our very own George Bush and Al Gore. It was always a mistake to hold it so close to Christmas." The deadline for the Christmas post was Thursday 20 December for first-class letters and Monday 17 December for second class.

At the time, Lib Dem blogs were awash with warnings that members' votes could be delayed by the huge demands on the Royal Mail before Christmas.

Perhaps ironically, Mr Clegg told The Times when asked about another matter yesterday: "I've always counted myself lucky."

A spokeswoman for Mr Clegg said yesterday: "The Electoral Commission absolutely firmly have said that none of the late votes were ever counted by anybody. There wasn't an official go-through of late ballot papers. Late ballot papers were discarded, because they were late and therefore void."

Mr Huhne could not be contacted for comment.