Why Olympian must hit ground running to fight twin challenge

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Indy Politics

With a major party conference starting today, crucial local elections just weeks away and a rejuvenated Conservative Party snapping at Liberal Democrat heels, Sir Menzies Campbell will have to hit the ground running.

He now needs to translate his extensive experience of foreign affairs into transforming his party into a fighting outfit capable of taking on the twin challenges of Gordon Brown and David Cameron in the years before the next general election.

The 64-year-old former Olympic sprinter turned Edinburgh QC faces the twin tasks of rebuilding a party still in shock from the bruising experience of bringing down its leader Charles Kennedy, and modernising its organisation to face the professional challenge from Mr Cameron's revitalised Conservative Party. He will nneed to make best use of the widespread respect thst enjoys among MPs of all parties and the press.

An affable and approachable politician, Ming - as he is invariably known - overcame cancer after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2002. He has been given a clean bill of health, but has had to contend with repeated questions about his age. He is very much the elder statesman when compared with Mr Cameron. But he exudes gravitas, and can point to an illustrious career as an athlete - he held the UK 100 metres record from 1967 to 1974 - and as an eminent lawyer.

Born in Glasgow in 1941, Sir Menzies was educated at Glasgow and Stanford universities, and is a friend of Gordon Brown.

The former party 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. With the possibility of a hung parliament now common currency at Westminster he will have to show that he can move his party towards government.

Sir Menzies will be greeted by the Liberal Democrat rank and file this evening at a rally to open the party's spring conference in Harrogate. On Sunday, he will make his first major speech, to flesh out his brand of leadership and outline the radical new policy platform that he hopes will take the party to fresh success. Next week, he faces the tough task of reshuffling the front bench, balancing the claims of his supporters with those of Chris Huhne, who has put himself in line for a significant role, and Simon Hughes, the party president, who came third in l;eadership poll.

Looming large in Sir Menzies' diary will be first appearance as leader for Prime Minister's Questions. Supporters hope will improve on his hesitant Commons performances as acting leader.

He also is likely to take up the task of overhauling the party's cumbersome policy-making programme and creaking headquarters operation, with the aim of making the party more responsive and professional.

The local elections, due in May, will be the first major electoral test of Sir Menzies' leadership.