Few headlines have arisen from the Liberal Democrats' leadership contest but its outcome could have more impact on the political landscape than the various crises erupting around the government. With so much attention on the main two parties and the battle between their leaders, it is easy to forget that, as ballot papers go out, the third party has 62 MPs, the largest number since the 1920s. In the event of a hung parliament after the next election, the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power, making their next leader an influential figure whether or not he goes on to join a coalition government.
In such a potentially intoxicating context the two candidates have not shone as brightly as they might have done. The Lib Dems are lucky to have two highly credible candidates. Both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are well qualified for the job and would flourish at the upper end of either of the two bigger parties. Yet the contest came to life, at least as far as the national media was concerned, only when Huhne launched his ill-judged personal attacks on Clegg. Huhne was not directly responsible for labelling his opponent "Calamity Clegg", but he had lapsed into making attacks on the consistency of Clegg's statements from which a member of his campaign team took a reckless lead. Clegg over-reacted, ensuring that the story would run a little longer and giving the impression of someone who is thin-skinned. He will face worse than a relatively mild attack from a colleague if he becomes leader.
Nonetheless, the substantial issues that have dominated the contest prove that the Lib Dems have an important role to play, not just in the event of a hung parliament but in the years leading up to the next election. From their opposition to ID cards to proposals for sweeping constitutional reform, the agenda on which both candidates are largely agreed is distinctive and radical. Both are strongly pro-European. Both advocate bold measures for the environment. Both have put forward policies for improving schools in poorer areas that are broadly alike.
Huhne has played up differences between the two during the contest, but the gap is nowhere near as wide as he has suggested. Clegg has convincingly rejected claims that he is a supporter of social insurance schemes for hospitals and vouchers for pupils. Huhne has made much of his opposition to the renewal of Trident, an important distinction, but on the whole the candidates have a similar political outlook.
The choice therefore is more about the personal strengths and visions of the candidates. Which is best suited to broaden the party's appeal and command media attention in a highly competitive political arena? Which candidate has the energy and focus to give the Lib Dems a clearer sense of purpose after a bleak period in which the party has lost two leaders?
Clegg is a youthful, dynamic candidate who can make a case on television. These are not the only qualifications for leadership, but they are a pre-condition to success in the modern era. Although he has fought an erratic campaign, he has sought to shed light on Britain's outdated political system and to convey a passionate desire to change it. He comes across as an attractive modern political figure who will be ready to challenge orthodoxies in his party in an attempt to reach out to the wider electorate.
During the contest, Huhne has shown a more authoritative grasp of some policy areas. He is an economist and was a distinguished columnist for this newspaper. The economy is always the main battleground between the parties. In contrast, Clegg has rarely spoken at length on the economy and has appeared at times a little vague when outlining other policy areas. In spite of these shortcomings and Huhne's strengths, Clegg is the candidate best equipped to lead his party in a tough political environment in which at a national level the Liberal Democrats will struggle to be heard. A new leader will be facing a resurgent David Cameron – and Gordon Brown cannot be written off just on the basis of recent events. Clegg should be given the chance to turn the current daunting challenges facing the Liberal Democrats into a fresh opportunity.