What makes this even more of a pity is that Mr Oaten was a promising politician and a rising star of the Liberal Democrats. He had given serious thought to the position of his party in British politics and had a clear idea of the direction in which it ought to head. As a home affairs spokesman, he provided robust and necessary opposition to the Government's anti-terrorism legislation. And although he was unlikely to have emerged victorious in the leadership contest (something he acknowledged by pulling out last week), his departure is a real blow to the Liberal Democrat front bench. We hope that this affair does not spell the end of Mr Oaten's political career.
These are turbulent times for the Liberal Democrats. In the space of little more than two weeks they have had to deal with the public revelation of their leader's alcoholism and his subsequent resignation. Then came the admission from Lord McNally, the party's leader in the House of Lords, that he too has battled with a drink problem. And now there is this sex scandal. What must make this succession of damaging headlines more difficult to bear is that they come less than a year after a general election in which the party gained its highest number of seats since the 1920s. Hopes were high for further progress. Instead, the party has gone backwards.
Although there is still much bad blood over the manner of Charles Kennedy's departure, the Liberal Democrats must resist the temptation to indulge in a period of score settling. That would be wholly counterproductive, especially as the media spotlight is now shinning on them intensely. What the party's latest troubles serve to underline is the need for it to choose a leader who can both unify and reinvigorate the MPs and the party in the country. The march of the Tory leader David Cameron on to traditional Liberal Democrat territory means that they do not have the luxury of time. This latest scandal to rock the party makes the need to choose the right leader all the more urgent.