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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 October 2007, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
So it's Clegg versus Huhne
Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood
Former head of media for the Liberal Democrats

Sir Menzies Campbell's home
A sign of the times at Sir Menzies Campbell's home
Just when you thought things couldn't get more hectic for the Lib Dems, they just did.

The extraordinarily swift nature of Ming Campbell's departure caught both the media and the party completely unaware.

Indeed, on Monday, I was having lunch with two journalists and was considered quite bold and radical for asserting that I thought Ming would quit by Christmas.

But I didn't expect him to quit within four hours.

So, the party's leadership race gets underway.

Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg are being described as the "frontrunners". But let's be clear about this, they are the only runners.

The only show in town

One of the things that has become transparently clear in the last forty eight hours is that no other MP can marshal sufficient support to mount a serious challenge to these two.

The leadership race so far...
Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne

Ed Davey and Julia Goldsworthy, the only two Lib Dems who might have come through to win the contest from nowhere, have thrown in with Clegg.

Intellectual left-winger Steve Webb could, perhaps, have got himself on the ballot paper - any candidate needs the support of seven Liberal MPs to do so - but would almost certainly have come a poor third. He too has joined the Clegg bandwagon.

It's Nick v Chris. A young pretender, who looks and sounds a bit like Cameron, against the slightly older second-time runner, who looks and sounds a bit like Brown.

The early signs are that this will be a close, hard fought contest. The strengths and weaknesses of both candidates have already been brought to the fore.

Parliament versus wider party

Chris Huhne at the Commons
Another sign of changing times with Chris Huhne at the Commons

Chris lacks depth of support in the Parliamentary party.

He is considered by some of his colleagues to be over-ambitious - although how this can be a credible criticism from within the ranks of a political party that hasn't won an election in over one hundred years is quite beyond me.

He is decisive, well-organised, and has the enormous advantage of being able to deploy the personnel and infrastructure he has inherited from his 2006 leadership bid.

Chris Huhne will run his campaign himself. He knows how the media works from his previous career as a senior journalist.

Intriguingly, Dick Newby and Anna Werrin - two key lieutenants of Charles Kennedy - have joined his team. If - despite his present protestations to the contrary - Kennedy were to publicly declare in Chris's favour, this could win the election for him.

But he urgently needs to prove himself to be a team player.

He made an error at his launch on Wednesday by "chairing" his own speech. Lynne Featherstone MP, who stood loyally by his side, spoke not a word.

Chris should have given her the task of taking questions from the assembled journalists. He must show he is not a one-man band.

Nick Clegg will have many more backers amongst Lib Dem MPs and the fulsome support of most of Ming Campbell's entourage.

The second of these is a mixed blessing, to say the least.

Campbell's leadership bid last spring was so ineptly run that Chris Huhne came in from a 200-1 shot to nearly win.

If Nick is relying on the same people, he has much to fear. He needs to pick a team he can trust and ruthlessly dispose of the hangers-on.

Media savvy

His decision to announce his bid on a Friday in Sheffield was designed to show he is a grassroots constituency-based MP - but actually displayed a surprising naivety about how the media works.

He would have secured much more extensive coverage by declaring on Thursday or waiting until Monday.

Friday is, as any party press officer can tell you, the worst possible day to try and secure attention for proactive political stories - politics is winding down for the weekend and Saturday's newspapers tend to be light on political coverage.

Nick Clegg
There will be fulsome backing for Nick Clegg

But the Clegg camp will benefit enormously from the recent recruitment of Ruth Brock, who has been the party's regional media manager for the past year.

Ruth is one of the best-organised and brightest press officers ever to have worked for the party, and she would be a central figure in any future Clegg-run party.

Nick needs to surround himself with a fresh team of such people and prove that he is not just telegenic, but media savvy.

Need to mark out differences

So, the two month campaign gets underway. Phase one is all about establishing your campaign team and deciding your platform.

It's a score draw at the moment, and the worry for the party must be that in a few weeks time, the contest could become deeply tedious.

The two candidates will need to mark out real differences about where they wish to lead the party, otherwise the public, the media and even the membership will be yawning by the time ballot papers are sent out in late November.

What will the outcome be? It's far, far too early to tell - but if you can still find a bookmaker who will offer you odds of 3-1 against Chris Huhne winning, that is a very good bet.

Mark Littlewood, Communications Director of the classical liberal think tank Progressive Vision, is a former head of media for the Liberal Democrats. This piece, the first of a regular series, is a personal view.

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