Leading article: A youthful new leader, but the same old challenges

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Compared with the previous contest for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, and even the recent imbroglio for deputy leader of the Labour Party, the latest race to lead the Lib Dems failed to catch alight. So the closeness of the result, when it was announced yesterday, prompted a frisson of surprise and thoughts about what might have been, had voting been spun out just a little longer.

Chris Huhne, always the underdog, fought a good campaign how good is now apparent. He was dignified and generous in defeat, as indeed was Nick Clegg in victory. Mercifully, they both seemed determined to put the rancour of the "Calamity Clegg" jibe behind them for the good of the party. Their hearty handshake suggested an appreciation of the need to make common cause from now on. The last thing any party, least of all the Liberal Democrats, needs is any Blair-Brown style rivalry at the top; it is, even without such a schism, perhaps the hardest of the major parties to lead.

The Liberal Democrats have elected the younger, more telegenic, slightly more right-leaning of the two candidates. Accepting the job, Mr Clegg set out an admirably concise account of himself. He noted, rightly, that the party has been at its best when it challenges conventional wisdom and consensus. If this is how he intends to carry on, that is an excellent sign.

Promising, too, was his list of policy priorities, starting with civil liberties, growing social inequality and what he described as Britain's "broken politics". Here is an agenda that could, if imaginatively and confidently pursued, set the Liberal Democrats apart from the other two parties and play to their strengths. Add in the environment, immigration and Europe, and the Liberal Democrats under their new leader have an opportunity to stamp their identity on the political debate.

Mr Clegg's promise to spend one day a week outside Westminster, and his plan for a "network of families" to provide a sounding board from the real world, offered further evidence of his desire to build on the localist roots of the party. But he must beware the pitfalls of sounding as Gordon Brown sometimes does as though he depends on the public for ideas. As leader, it is his job to lead.

Mr Clegg also has some ground to make up. His relative youth can be a handicap as well as an advantage. His performance during the campaign was less convincing than many had expected: over cautious, and at times coming across as vacuous and lightweight. In the Commons and on television, Mr Clegg established himself as an authoritative and persuasive spokesman who was prepared to take risks. His party needs more of this boldness if its voice is to be heard.

As it happens, if the new Liberal Democrat leader had occasionally lifted his gaze from the campaign trail, he would have learnt much from the party's much-praised acting leader. Vince Cable's performance has been a lesson in how the third party can, and must, make its distinctive voice heard. Of course, he was helped by the fact that the financial and economic dominance of the political debate played to his particular expertise, but he capitalised on that, to his own and his party's immense benefit.

Mr Clegg has a more difficult task in that he has to play for the long-term. Mistakes may be forgotten less quickly, and Liberal Democrat MPs have not been kind to their recent leaders. That said, four past leaders set their differences aside to turn out in support of the new man yesterday. Their solidarity, and Mr Huhne's response to defeat, hold out the hope of unity and a new beginning. We hope so, because the third party is more necessary on the British political scene than ever.

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