Steve Richards: The Lib Dems are confused, which is why their leadership contest has become a farce

Suddenly, Tweedledum and Tweedledee metamorphosed into Morecambe and Wise
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Another Liberal Democrat leadership contest descends into spiteful silliness. I had higher hopes for the latest battle, but the two candidates follow the model of previous campaigns that teetered on the edge of melancholic absurdity.

In recent days, the silliness has taken two different forms. Last Thursday, BBC1's Question Time gave Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne an hour of near peak-time television to put their case and, by implication, make a broader pitch for their party as well. The Liberal Democrats will never get such exposure again until the general election. Not even two members of the cabinet will get such a television opportunity to make their mark.

Clegg and Huhne blew it. They allowed themselves to become diverted into long passages about whether they were to blame for the fall of Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. Later, they debated the ridiculous hypothesis that there would be a Labour/Conservative coalition after the election. Evidently, the programme wanted to focus on Kennedy and coalitions, but more nimble-footed politicians would have moved on to more fruitful terrain. Most people I have spoken to switched off before the end.

In contrast, but equally damaging, no one who caught the duo's spat on the BBC's Politics Show would have reached for the off button. This was the programme in which Huhne's campaign team had provided the programme's researchers with a document entitled "Calamity Clegg". The two candidates had been nicknamed Tweedledum and Tweedledee because of their similarities. Suddenly, they metamorphosed into Morecambe and Wise. I thought the tall one might give the shorter one a two handed slap on the face as he contemplated the "calamity" document with a look of thin-skinned despair. The shorter one looked slightly embarrassed before disowning the document while endorsing its contents.

On one level, the incident was trivial. After all, this is a contest. Two candidates are battling it out for high stakes. There are bound to be tensions. But on another level, the television moment was symptomatic of an amateurish approach to national politics. Huhne is playing a dangerous game in effectively portraying his opponent as an inconsistent lightweight. No equivalent personal assaults have flown around recent Labour and Conservative leadership contests. And yet the substance of the "calamity" document has some force. Clegg has a tendency to make sweeping policy statements which are not thought through.

When I interviewed Clegg for GMTV the weekend before last, he outlined his worthy progressive proposal to increase funding for poorer schools but admitted he did not know where some of the money would come from to pay for it. I put it to him that presumably the additional cash would come one way or another from taxing the better off. This was his reply:

NC: Yes, er well no, hang on, er, sorry...

SR: You said yes, so tax increase?

NC: No, no, let me correct that. I think there is plenty of scope to cut back on some of the waste in government...

Huhne, too, has stretched credibility occasionally with silly paralysing proposals such as Swiss-style referendums. He has also continued to claim that Clegg favours the introduction of school vouchers, when Clegg has been unequivocal in stating that he does not.

What is happening? Both candidates have impressive qualities and would hold their own near the top of the bigger parties. Clegg has brought a more credibly radical approach to his Home Affairs brief. More widely, he is committed to European-style levels of investment and innovation in public services, based partly on his own internationalist experiences. His wife is Spanish. Like Huhne, he has been an MEP and has worked in several countries.

His itinerary on the weekend before the Lib Dems' conference gives a flavour. On the Saturday he attended a political conference in France, before heading for a wedding in Spain and was in Brighton for the start of the conference by the Sunday afternoon. Most of us would find the start of a Lib Dem conference exhausting enough without the continental preliminaries. I do not believe, as Huhne implies, that he is a clone of David Cameron. He leans in a more progressive and pro-European direction.

I had a coffee with Huhne a couple of days after the Northern Rock crisis had erupted. He gave the most forensically accurate analysis of what had happened, and what would happen next, that I have heard. The Lib Dems are lucky to have several economists in their parliamentary ranks. But Huhne can range widely and with more self-confident authority than most politicians. Rightly, he opposes the costly renewal of Trident, one of the few senior politicians to make the case. Yesterday, he also dared to make the pivotal connection between equality and liberty. On these counts alone, he becomes a distinctive voice, but the thrust of his campaign in recent days has been more of a misjudged noisy moan about his opponent.

The qualities of both candidates are obscured, partly because they are wooing a party membership alone, rarely an exercise which brings the best out of aspirant leaders. They are also unused to media scrutiny, lucky if they get 10 seconds on a news bulletin under normal circumstances. But there are always deeper reasons when a party lapses into silliness. Parties never become accident-prone by accident.

The Lib Dems have had two contests in traumatic circumstances in less than two years. There are similarities to the Conservatives, a party that entertained us with a contest every two years or so after 1997. The Conservatives suffered from a deeper identity crisis, unclear how to challenge the government and whether it wanted to move further to the right. At a national level, the Liberal Democrats' crisis of identity arises from their confused attitude to power. To take the current leadership contest as an example, neither candidate states clearly that he wants to implement as many of his policies as possible and therefore will seek to work closely with other parties, whether there is a hung parliament or not, preferably in government.

Instead, they prefer the purity of impotent opposition. Even if there is a hung parliament, I would not bet on the Lib Dems being able to join a coalition, as a leader would need the assent of the wilful party membership. So there is no surprise that a party and its leading figures seek clearer definition. In recent years it has won more seats, but what, if anything, follows incremental progress?

As we await an answer, I note the choice of those MPs in marginal constituencies. Desperately, they need a leader who will help them keep their seats. Most of them back Clegg, recognising qualities and telegenic charm that have made only rare appearances in this campaign.