Leading article: The descent into farce

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The Independent Online

The Liberal Democrat leadership contest is becoming even more bizarre than the events that made it necessary to hold one in the first place. One former candidate, Mark Oaten, resigned as shadow Home Affairs Spokesman over liaisons with a male prostitute. Now the party's president, Simon Hughes, admits to gay relationships, having previously stressed his heterosexuality. The private affairs of politicians are a matter for them, but in both of these cases there was a blatant attempt to mislead the public.

Mr Oaten announced his bid for the leadership by inviting the television cameras into his kitchen to convey the impression he was the reassuring candidate with a young family. Mr Hughes chose to lie about his homosexuality after the revelations about Mr Oaten, when the dangers of covering up should have been even more obvious.

The attempted cover-up raises questions about Mr Hughes' judgement and integrity at a time when he seeks to be a party leader and potential Prime Minister. Additionally, his misjudged mendacity was a wasted opportunity: had he chosen to be candid in the face of persistent questions, he might have become the first openly gay leader of a national political party. His election would have been another significant step towards a more open, liberal and tolerant Britain. Instead, these displays of duplicity represent a step in the opposite direction, signalling that even members of a supposedly progressive party feel compelled to hide their sexuality.

The increasingly farcical contest is also a missed opportunity in a broader context. On several fronts, the Liberal Democrats are playing a vital and distinctive role, the only party to challenge the Government's culpability over rendition, speaking out consistently on issues relating to civil liberties, and opposing some of Tony Blair's public service reforms. More specifically, Mr Hughes had been an impressive candidate in the leadership contest, adding passion and a radical cutting edge.

With David Cameron moving the Conservatives back to the centre ground, the Liberal Democrats were more vulnerable already. Now their senior MPs behave foolishly and there is no leader in place to steady the ship. Sir Menzies Campbell exudes a reassuring calm, but as a candidate he is likely to be a short-term beneficiary of this turbulence.

This was an opportunity to focus on a party invigorated by the clash of ideas and competing visions of liberalism. Instead, the events of recent days have made the Liberal Democrats seem ridiculous and casual in their approach to the truth. Mr Hughes's handling of an admittedly sensitive issue has been inept, and has damaged a party he hopes to lead.