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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 December 2007, 08:58 GMT
LibDem leadership: what's the betting?
Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood
Former head of media for the Liberal Democrats

Playing cards

So, the Liberal Democrat leadership race limps into its final lap. A final lap of what is beginning to feel like a marathon. But finally - thankfully - there are just a few days to go...

Last weekend, the election looked as good as over, with Sky News' yougov poll of LibDem members showing a Nick Clegg lead of 14% over underdog Chris Huhne.

The polls can get it wrong.

Research by the same company last time out predicted a narrow Huhne win over Ming Campbell.

But this poll seemed to confirm most people's view that despite a lacklustre campaign, Nick has too much of an edge to be caught.

But a survey by a mysterious "independent third party" - thought to be a highly affluent LibDem-supporting businessman - of 1,000 party members taken over the past few days, purported to show a staggering late surge for Huhne, with those expressing a preference going for the Hampshire MP by a mammoth 3:1 margin.

Done and dusted?

Of course, it could be too late.

Something like 35,000 ballot papers will have been returned already.

Conventional wisdom suggests that about 20,000 of these will have been cast for Nick and perhaps 15,000 for Chris.

Many Liberal Democrats vote almost as soon as they get their voting papers - but in previous contests a considerable number wait until the last possible moment before making their choice.

The leadership race so far...

If, say, 10,000 members have waited until the end of the contest to vote and 75% of them do plump for Huhne, then this would imply a statistical dead heat.

The grassroots support network that Chris has built so assiduously over recent months will be put to the test now.

If his campaign team can track down the many thousands of Liberal Democrats with uncompleted ballot papers still sitting on their sideboards and mantelpieces, their man could pull off a narrow, but stunning, victory on 17 December.

Nick Clegg
The Clegg camp are buoyant even if Clegg is pensive...

Camp Clegg, however, continue to display considerable confidence - in public at least.

In an effort to pre-empt the poll showing a substantial late boost for Huhne, Nick's team released their own canvass returns, showing him with a commanding 60% to 40% lead.

But if Nick Clegg's own figures show a 20% majority, we can be reasonably certain that his actual lead - if he has one - is considerably smaller than this.

That's not because of any cooking of the books by the Cleggites but rather because of the intrinsic politeness of LibDem members - a good number of whom will have said "don't know" or "I'm undecided" when in fact intending to vote for Chris.

Tardy Today

Some will even have pledged their support to Nick while secretly intending to vote for his opponent.

The Today programme gallery
Clegg and Today, didn't mix well...

If Nick Clegg does now lose by a wafer thin margin, he will probably have his weak performance on last Tuesday's Today programme to blame.

So vague and non-specific were some of his answers that the interviewer needed to ask for clarification on what he actually meant.

Even some committed Clegg devotees in the LibDem blogosphere, publicly expressed shock at his lacklustre showing.

And Huhne's team - whilst assiduously avoiding the use of the word "calamity - has seized on this last-gasp opportunity by emailing thousands of LibDem members with a link to the Radio 4 hustings and encouraging them to listen again.

The LibDem leadership race bears more than a passing similarity to the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year competition.

Nick Clegg - like Lewis Hamilton - was seen as a racing certainty.

Chris Huhne
Chris Huhne has his gloves well and truly on...

But in the face of insanely high expectations - and a disappointing and timid finish, he is no longer the nailed-on cert he once was.

Chris Huhne is Ricky Hatton.

In the LibDem leadership election and the BBC contest, the overwhelming proportion of last minute votes will be for the Eastleigh underdog and the working-class welterweight.

All too late?

But you just can't escape the feeling that it might be too little, too late.

So whilst I have put a few hundred quid on Huhne to win at odds of 3-1 (and still consider that to be a good bet), I have to call the election for Clegg, probably by a margin of between 5% and 10%. And then the real work starts.

The reason that Nick's media appearances in recent weeks have been seen as disappointing is not so much that he has been consistently poor - some of his turns over the airwaves have actually been pretty damned good.

The problem has been, that the impression developed that he was such a media natural that every millisecond of Nick Clegg on television would simply burst with brilliance, intellectual incision and boyish charm.

Even if every TV set in the country had now blown a fuse due to an inability to cope with the sheer scale and force of Clegg's charisma, there would still be some commentators saying that he wasn't all he was cracked up to be.

What ideas?

Ming Campbell suffered a similar fate when a couple of stuttering performances at Prime Minister's Questions were used to "prove" he wasn't the Parliamentary statesman he was supposed to be.

No, if Nick does emerge as leader, there isn't much of a problem with his media style.

Of course there's room for improvement - but that's true of virtually any politician.

And you get the impression that he'd cope with the increased media demands with ease.

ID Cards
ID Cards - not one of Clegg's favourite things

The central problem - and one that he would need to address quite quickly over the festive period - has been the almost total lack of engaging ideas.

With the honourable exception of his pledge to defy the law over ID cards, it is hard to recall any other genuinely exciting or memorable statement to cross Nick's lips in recent weeks.

The next leader of the Liberal Democrats doesn't just need to be good on TV when invited to appear, he needs the courage and imagination to force his way onto the nation's screens and into the public psyche.

With perhaps one or two exceptions, his campaign seems to have been run by people with a degree of public relations expertise, but with a very limited understanding of media management or the news cycle.

If Nick, as Liberal Democrat leader, surrounds himself with PR managers and public affairs lobbyists, he risks disappearing from view. And one thing the party can't afford is to have a leader who - however slick and engaging - is almost silent and invisible to the average voter.

All of this presupposes, of course, that Nick does actually prevail by the time the last envelope arrives at the offices of the Electoral Reform Society next Saturday. Chris Huhne hasn't worked and planned so hard over the last eighteen months just to meekly give up now.

His campaign will pull out all the stops in these last few days. And it can't be ruled out that he might yet prevail.

Mark Littlewood, Communications Director of the classical liberal think tank Progressive Vision, is a former head of media for the Liberal Democrats. This piece, part of a weekly series during the leadership election, is a personal view.

The Politics Show is on BBC One at 12.00pm on Sunday, 09 December 2007. You can reach the programme by using the form below.

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