The Year in Review: British politics

A game of follow the leader
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The Independent Online

At the start of 2007, few Liberal Democrats thought that 2007 would see them elect their third leader in two years. Sir Menzies Campbell was the highly respected and reassuring figure the party needed to steer it into calmer waters after the ousting of Charles Kennedy. But he never fully made the transition from foreign affairs spokesman and Newsnight commentator to effective party leader.

The grumbling against him would probably have remained just that if Gordon Brown had not flirted with, and then scrapped, a November general election. When it was called off, Sir Menzies was left exposed. His critics were accused of ageism. But perhaps his 66 years were an excuse rather than a reason to move against him. Wisely, Sir Menzies saw the hordes gathering and swiftly stood aside, preserving his dignity and avoiding the bruising fate suffered by Kennedy when senior party figures turned against him. As Sir Menzies departed, the Liberal Democrats slumped to just 11 per cent in some opinion polls, half their share of the vote at the 2005 election. Yet the party then enjoyed an unexpectedly bright interregnum under Vince Cable, its number two, who stood in as acting leader while its members chose Sir Menzies' successor.

Free from the pressure of running for the leadership, Cable, 64, scored several hits. He did so well that some Liberal Democrats (possibly including the man himself) regretted his decision not to enter the leadership race. His spell in charge showed that age is not a barrier to a strong performance.

It also raised the bar for his successor. Nick Clegg, the party's telegenic home affairs spokesman, squeaked home by a mere 511 votes after a rather lacklustre leadership contest against Chris Huhne, the party's environment spokesman. Clegg, the clear front-runner, fought a cautious campaign, not wishing to alienate party members but coming perilously close to not winning enough of their votes.

Huhne, knowing he would probably lose a beauty contest, positioned himself slightly to the left of his rival on policy and showed he is a clever media operator by securing a high profile on stories such as Labour's secret donations.

Clegg, an MP for only two and a half years, has plenty of ideas to shake up his party, even if he kept some of them up his sleeve during the leadership contest. He will need to make his mark during his first 100 days as leader if he is to achieve his goal of reaching out to people with liberal instincts who do not vote Liberal Democrat. The new leader can boast a strong top team including Cable, Huhne and David Laws, all of whom would be serious contenders for a Cabinet post if they were Labour or Tory politicians. But it is hard for the third party to force positive messages through the prism of a largely hostile media more interested in stories about sniping at its leader than the fine print of its policies.

By electing Clegg, the Liberal Democrats opted for their best communicator. He will need to be at the top of his game in 2008 if his party is to face the next election with confidence.

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