The re-emergence of talk about Charles Kennedy's leadership has baffled his aides, who insist he has never even contemplated resigning. But, as Lib Dem parliamentarians scrambled over themselves to pledge fidelity to Mr Kennedy, there was furious speculation at Westminster once again about who could or would take over.
Liberal Democrat leaders, including Paddy Ashdown and David Steel, tend to serve 10 years before resigning. But there would be no disgrace in Mr Kennedy handing over the baton earlier from a position of strength. He would have steered the Lib Dems to their to best election showing since 1929 and reinvigorated the party and restored its independent spirit. Resigning in 2005-2006 would afford him a legacy of success and release him from the visible strains of high office and allow him to pursue a normal life again.
If he did stand down in two years, the most obvious candidates to mount a challenge would be the party's "big beasts" Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's able deputy leader, and Simon Hughes, 52, the Lib Dem candidate for London mayor who lost to Mr Kennedy five years ago.
Sir Menzies's national profile has grown over the war in Iraq and his interventions on the Middle East crisis. He is respected as a serious figure and "heavy hitter" at Westminster and has the brains, judgement and gravitas to deliver serious blows against the Tories and Labour. His only disadvantage is his age. He is 62 - the same age as Michael Howard - but has indicated that his ambition to be leader remains undimmed.
Simon Hughes, 52, has also made it clear that he would not rule out another leadership bid if Charles Kennedy stood down. Mr Hughes has widespread support among the Lib Dem grassroots. But his chances would be stymied if he is elected as mayor. At the weekend he told The Independent that he would serve a full term and not challenge for the leadership if elected. His fiercely loyal acolytes see him as the standard bearer of left and are keen for him to try his hand again.
Although Kennedy aides are adamant that at 44, he has many leadership years left in him, there are a clutch of ambitious young Turks who appear to be champing at the bit before the starting gun has been fired. Among the MPs being talked of as potential challengers are Mark Oaten, 40, the likeable Home Affairs spokesman, Matthew Taylor, 41, the media-savvy chair of the parliamentary party, and Ed Davey, 38, an economist and Local Government spokesman. All three are loyal allies of Mr Kennedy and would be unlikely to mount a bid. But if Mr Kennedy stepped aside after the general election, they would not flinch from trying their luck.
Among the other MPs who should not be discounted are Lembit Opik, 39, the super-ambitious Wales spokesman, who has a sideline in monitoring asteroids, and Steve Webb, 38, the party's Work and Pensions spokesman. Chris Huhne, 49, a thoughtful MEP who is likely to be elected as an MP at the next election is also leadership material.
Another name from Brussels to watch, is Nick Clegg, currently an MEP also battling for a winnable seat at Westminster. Mr Clegg, 37, has Mr Kennedy's popular appeal and a strategic brain that would afford the Liberal Democrats widespread support. But 2006 would be too early for Mr Clegg to countenance a challenge. He too would have to build a base at Westminster. But should Mr Kennedy continue, as his aides insist, for many more years Mr Clegg would be a natural to continue his legacy. He would be also be perfectly positioned to succeed Sir Menzies Campbell or Simon Hughes, if they come through.
All potential pretenders to the Lib Dem throne will have to overcome one obstacle. Unlike the Tories, who raised Michael Howard to the purple without consulting their members, with the Lib Dems it is the leaflet-deliverers and doughty figures who sing party anthems at their annual "glee club" who hold the keys of office. The ambitious young things would be well advised to remember that.
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