Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Why Lib Dems could hold the balance of power at the next election
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The Independent Online

Just when the Tories relish the prospect of seeing the back of a rival leader who looks and talks like one of them - Tony Blair - along comes another one in Sir Menzies Campbell.

Ignore the Tories' spin that they wanted the 64-year-old elder statesman to become Liberal Democrat leader. True, it might suit David Cameron to do battle with a man 25 years his senior. But it might suit the 55-year-old Gordon Brown rather more to be sandwiched between the two other leaders in the age stakes.

The truth is that sensible Tories fear Sir Menzies. One very senior party figure told me: "He hoovers up our natural supporters. They think he's a Tory."

It is already fashionable to dismiss the new leader of the Liberal Democrats as an elderly caretaker who will provide a safe hand on the tiller but not make waves. I suspect his critics underestimate him. He knows what his party needs to do.

Sir Menzies will need to inject professionalism to a Liberal Democrat machine that has not kept pace with the party's recent growth. The Liberal Democrats have long looked a one-man band. That will change, since Sir Menzies is happy to be "the captain of a youthful team".

His other priority is to bring greater credibility the party's policies. It has said little about what it would do about health or education and has taken refuge in easy attacks on the Government's record. Banging on about MRSA or Whitehall targets is a strategy but not a policy.

There is a danger that the Liberal Democrats' commitment to localism will be forgotten as Labour and the Tories belatedly discover the virtues of decentralising power. The third party needs some fresh ideas to remind us that it got there first. Sir Menzies' dilemma will be how to woo natural Tories while maintaining the inroads the Liberal Democrats have made into Labour's territory.

He may well make their policies more credible. But he faces another credibility test: many voters may eschew the third party because they know it is unlikely to win.

The Liberal Democrats matter because they may well hold the balance of power after the next election. The experts say the chances are high because a Tory lead in the share of the vote of between one and 11.8 points would result in a hung parliament.

According to John Curtice, the professor of politics at Strathclyde University, this wider than ever range "reflects the fact that as many as one in seven MPs is now unattached to Conservative and Labour and that this figure is largely impervious to the relative popularity of the two largest parties".

Sir Menzies will need to perform a delicate balancing act, convincing voters and commentators that his party would not be a wasted vote because it could hold the balance of power but without allowing such speculation to dominate the party's election campaign.

Sir Menzies says he has banned words like coalition, pacts and hung parliaments from the Liberal Democrat lexicon to avoid the SDP-Liberal Alliance's mistakes at the 1983 and 1987 elections. If only life were that simple. I suspect the media will make a hung parliament a big election issue whether he likes it it not.

Labour, too, is anxious to play down the prospect. Mr Blair told Labour MPs on Monday: "I don't want to hear any more of this talk about hung parliaments. We are not interested in hung parliaments. The important thing for Labour to recognise is that we have to acquire the rhythm of government."

Which way would Sir Menzies jump if he had to decide between Prime Minister Brown and Cameron? Although it might be dangerous to prop up a dying Labour government, Sir Menzies is a man of the centre left, even if he looks like a Conservative. I can't imagine him getting into bed with the Tories.

My hunch is that the Liberal Democrats would realise that they had more in common with Labour than the Tories - not least, perhaps, a willingness to reform the voting system.

Mr Brown, never a fan when Mr Blair played footsie with the Liberal Democrats, wisely took out an insurance policy this week by hinting at voting reform. It is a policy he may well need.