Nick Clegg: We need a leader with experience, not youth

This would be the wrong time for the party to skip a generation
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The Independent Online

It is too trite to say these are difficult times for the Liberal Democrats. The party is in a state of shock, even of collective trauma, about the events that led up to Charles Kennedy's resignation on Saturday. Anger, exhaustion and bewilderment loom over the party.

It will not be easy to put this episode behind the party. Passions must subside, recriminations must stop, unity must be rediscovered. This will take time. For a start, the absurd notion that any one person or group of people was "responsible" for Charles' downfall should be seen for what it is - a good story for journalists and columnists, but a woefully inaccurate description of the messy, uncontrolled, unhappy and unplanned evolution of events in recent weeks.

Right until the day Charles Kennedy made his statement about his alcoholism I remained of the view that he could have successfully fought to remain as leader. That fatal blow, driven by the impending revelations on ITV News rather than some parliamentary plot, left him no option but to stand down. This was an opinion which was as widely shared by party members in my constituency in Sheffield as it was by MPs at Westminster. There is no smoking gun lurking in an MP's office.

So the party needs to regain its balance, rediscover its talent for united, effective political activity. I have always been of the view that this would be the wrong time for the party to jump a generation, mimicking the ascendancy of David Cameron. We are a party which is unnerved by what has happened. There is a clear need for experienced, authoritative leadership capable of uniting Liberal Democrats and swiftly projecting the party outwards with credibility and self-confidence. This is a time when the party needs self-assured experience, not youth, at the helm. It is why I was keen to signal my support for Ming Campbell as soon as it was clear he was a candidate.

For me, this is as much a personal decision as a political one. I have been working as Ming's deputy in the Commons dealing with Foreign Affairs since I was elected as an MP. To me, as for so many people in the party and the country, Ming was familiar as a voice of measured passion and impeccable logic in dissecting Blair's flimsy case for going to war in Iraq. So it was no surprise to me when I arrived in the Commons to discover that Ming, in private as well as public, is an unusually thoughtful and accomplished politician.

What surprised me, if I'm honest, is that he is also remarkably unaffected and approachable. I have lost count of the number of times that Ming has, unprompted, given me a small tip, a friendly suggestion, to help me find my way round the Byzantine ways of Westminster. Politics is full of talented individuals who like to do their own thing and shun teamwork. Egos clash and ambitions collide. Yet Ming has a sustained record of fostering teamwork, and supporting those who work alongside him. That counts in my book.

Ming will need to make his own case in his own words. I hope a leadership contest will give him the opportunity to do so. One of the sillier notions doing the rounds in recent days is that someone, somehow, could unilaterally decree that there should be a coronation of the new leader. There will only be a coronation if there are no contestants.

Only those who are considering whether they should stand will decide whether there is a contest or not. I hope they will. The party as a whole needs the opportunity to scrutinise the candidates, test their views and provide the winner with a clear mandate to lead.

Leading the Lib Dems will require real skill in a rapidly changing political environment. We must restake our claim to being the authentic voice of liberal England, against the synthetic liberalism of David Cameron. Ming's experience will serve as a welcome contrast to the somewhat callow reinvention of the Conservative party under Cameron. There is no case for the party to lurch to the right or the left - elections are still fought and won in the centre, but we must learn to fight better, harder and with greater credibility and flair in a more crowded field.

Civil liberties, the environment, internationalism, an overweening, centralised Government, unaccountable public services, and social justice remain the questions which will dominate political debate. We will need to make our case with ever greater force and authority to succeed. But the prize is great. The Liberal Democrats can emerge from the present period of anxiety and uncertainty stronger, more united and more credible than before. That, in turn, will help us shape British politics for years to come.

The writer is the Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam