Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Clegg vs Huhne is just Brown vs Blair again
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The Independent Online

The economics man regards himself as the senior partner even though the two friends-turned-rivals entered Parliament at the same time. He is older than the home affairs spokesman, and seen as slightly to the left of him on policy. He doubts his rival's economic credentials and doesn't want the leadership election to be a "beauty contest" because his telegenic junior partner is widely regarded as the man who can reach beyond the party's traditional supporters.

You guessed it: Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in 1994. But history is repeating itself as Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg vie for the Liberal Democrat leadership. Like New Labour's two main architects, they were once close. But in politics, friends fall out when leaderships fall vacant. Mr Clegg was miffed when Mr Huhne stood against Sir Menzies Campbell last year after hinting that he would not.

Now the two men battle it out openly for the top in an election that does matter. Ignore the premature obituaries for Britain's third party. The big two may ridicule the Liberal Democrats but they are watching the contest closely. It could have huge implications for the direction of politics until the next election and beyond, when the Liberal Democrats could easily hold the balance of power.

Margaret Thatcher once likened the third party, which has a bird as its logo, to a "dead parrot" (without knowing that the words come from a Monty Python sketch).

This bird is still alive and kicking. It went upwards in two opinion polls this week, bouncing back from 11 per cent to 18 per cent, after the almost exclusively negative media coverage of Sir Menzies gave way to the ideas floated by its two able leadership candidates.

Although the pundits think it will struggle to hold on to many of its 63 seats at the next election, it has defied the experts before by doing better in recent elections than the polls suggested. In 2005, it won 22 per cent of the votes and so cannot be discounted.

Whoever wins the leadership will nonetheless face a daunting task. The media is obsessed with the two-party dogfight (as some readers of this column have rightly accused me of being). It is hard for the third party to compete on a crowded centre ground that it once had to itself. Yet the convergence of Labour and the Tories in many policy areas might just create an opportunity for a third force with fresh thinking.

A battle of ideas might be better for the Liberal Democrats than the cautious contest that took place after Charles Kennedy resigned, when the front-runner, Sir Menzies, ran a safety-first campaign (and Mr Huhne did well to get within striking distance).

Reports that Mr Huhne and Mr Clegg are exactly the same because they went to Westminster School, were both MEPs and have foreign-born wives are misleading. Genuine differences are opening up on policy.Mr Clegg, the front-runner, is trying to use the contest to appeal to voters as well as the 64,000 party members who will choose the party's new leader next month. That could be a high-risk strategy, since it has allowed Mr Huhne to produce a shopping list designed to appeal to the party's grass roots.

So while Mr Clegg talks up public service reforms, Mr Huhne stresses the limits of markets – another echo of Blair versus Brown. Similarly, Mr Clegg talks tough on crime and Mr Huhne fears that such talk risks increasing fear of crime – just as Mr Brown did. Mr Huhne seeks to end the party's support for the Trident missile system; Mr Clegg attacks such unilateralism.

Mr Clegg has got off to a quicker start. He has already secured the support of 33 MPs, more than half the parliamentary party. Significantly, he won the backing yesterday of Simon Hughes, the party's left-leaning president, who might have been expected to back Mr Huhne. "Nick is a great communicator," said Mr Hughes. "We must get across urgently the real need for a Britain and a world where liberal values are the norm. In my judgement, Nick will be best able to do this."

Although Mr Clegg is widely seen as the more savvy media performer, Mr Huhne says the third party must be different to the big two and does not need a Blair or Cameron Mark Two and that the public craves authenticity rather than spin doctor politics.

He told tomorrow's GMTV Sunday programme that he has showed his credentials as a communicator in his role as environment spokesman. He urged commentators not to "shoot from the hip" on the level of support for the two men.

It is true that Mr Huhne cannot be written off. He proved as much in last year's contest and could yet give Mr Clegg a run for his money among grassroots members, MEPs, members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and councillors. The contest could be closer than the bookmakers expect.

All the same, I suspect the Liberal Democrats to reach the same conclusion that Labour did in 1994 – albeit without a formal contest – by choosing the right man for the modern media age and the candidate the Tories fear more.