Steve Richards: Now Campbell has to prove himself all over again

He faces the daunting problem of attracting attention on the national stage
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The Independent Online

After one of the more bizarre periods in their party's history the Liberal Democrats have a new leader. The events that sparked the election were darkly wild. The subsequent contest was subdued. The episodes that formed the sequence were the equivalent of watching Fawlty Towers followed by a long seminar on the hotel industry. Still they and we, the weary onlookers, have pulled through.

At the age of 64 and after a long political career, Sir Menzies Campbell finds he has got to prove himself all over again. As acting leader he has performed hesitantly at Prime Minister's Questions. As a campaigner he began as the clear front runner and then appeared less confident as the weeks followed. Such a pattern would be unfortunate for the Liberal Democrats in subsequent election campaigns.

But the Lib Dems have made the right choice. A third party in a fragile political situation needs a leader with an already established authoritative voice, not a virtual unknown who might acquire gravitas once he has been in position for a year or two. They need also someone who exudes a grounded decency and who has displayed good judgement in previous testing political circumstances. At key moments, including the rise of Tony Blair and the war against Iraq, Campbell has made astute calls on the best course to take.

His accession marks the fulfilment of patient ambition. I have come away from several conversations with Campbell struck by his surprising hunger for leadership and a related regret that he had not been a candidate in previous contests. His reassuring image will appeal to some Conservative voters in marginal seats. At the same time I suspect Campbell has more in common with the senior figures in the Labour Party who seek to form a new progressive consensus. Such effortless ambiguity is a precondition to success for the third party as it seeks yet again to make a breakthrough.

The second placed Chris Huhne acquired momentum as the campaign intensified. But Huhne did not set the contest alight in the way David Cameron managed to do when the Conservatives selected their leader. Huhne spoke with authority on a range of policy fronts and this was enough to attract some rave reviews.

The other candidate, Simon Hughes, was doomed from the beginning when he admitted to mishandling the questions about his homosexuality. He awkwardly made a series of tormented public confessions, only to come third. Hughes agonised over whether to stand in a contest brought about by a hidden part of a leader's life. He made the wrong decision.

The problems and opportunities for Sir Menzies are more or less the same as those faced by his predecessors. Most immediately he faces the daunting problem of attracting attention on the national stage when the Liberal Democrats are often seen as irrelevant and distant from power. This is why speculation about a future hung parliament is so intoxicating for the media and some Lib Dems. In such knife-edge circumstances they would suddenly acquire a pivotal importance. In the short term, the speculation about such an outcome gives them a sense of possible future importance.

Yet the endless questions about how the Lib Dems would act if no party has an overall majority diverts attention from any substantial policy agenda. I would also place no money on such an outcome. Before each election, pundits descend from the skies to predict hung parliaments. They happen rarely.

Campbell and his entourage should forget about hung parliaments and exploit the broader political situation. In the Commons, the Liberal Democrats offer an authentic alternative to the agenda over which Labour and the Conservatives coalesce. This is an astonishing stroke of good fortune for the new leader. Even without trying, he leads a party that alone opposes the schools Bill and has consistently put the case against ID cards and some of the Government's more contrived acts of authoritarianism. Campbell will be the most authoritative voice in the Commons to have opposed the war against Iraq from the beginning.

But the political situation will look different again by the time of the next election. By then Tony Blair will have gone and Gordon Brown will almost certainly attract back most Labour defectors who switched to the Liberal Democrats at the last election. David Cameron's Conservative Party will have some policies to symbolise his recent warm words uttered defiantly from the overcrowded centre ground.

In the end Campbell won by a substantial margin. He will need all the authority of an emphatic victory to make headway in the months to come.