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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 November 2007, 10:10 GMT
Lighting the blue touchpaper...
Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood
Former head of media for the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne

In the latest missive from Mark Littlewood on the Liberal Democrat leadership battle, fireworks are set to burn between the two key contenders with some explosive issues dividing their respective campaigns...

In the world of the bland, the one idea man is king.

So, those of us who feared that the Liberal Democrat contest would degenerate into the most tedious party leadership election of modern times, also believed that whichever candidate came up with the illusory "big idea" could generate that all-important momentum.

But then suddenly - like proverbial buses - three ideas came along at once.

Chris Huhne has now pledged to oppose the renewal of the Trident missile system and to introduce a Swiss-style people's veto on Parliamentary legislation.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg vows to break the law on ID cards if the government presses ahead with a compulsory scheme.

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

Whilst Chris was swift to endorse Nick's bold stance, we are at last seeing some clear blue water between the two contenders.

And this is important - because it draws out the key differences in the sort of party that the LibDems would become under either man.

The revolution...

Let's take Chris's week first.

He launched an impressive 20-page policy document entitled "The Liberal Revolution" at a well-attended rally on Wednesday (especially noticeable was the relative youthfulness of his supporters).

There wasn't a General Election on November 1st, but if a snap election again looks possible then the LibDems could do worse than lift this publication off the shelf and adopt it hook, line and sinker.

It's very well-written, genuinely accessible and contains some engaging radical thinking.

Proposed ID card
A contentious issue as far as Clegg is concerned

Huhne's whole campaign looks a lot slicker than his dry run in 2006, when he was as surprised as anyone to be prevailed upon by a number of his Parliamentary colleagues to throw his hat in the ring.

Visual message

The iconography of his candidature is perfectly calibrated.

He is using a multi-coloured backdrop, with each panel showing him in an open-necked shirt leaning over a graphically enhanced fence.

The subliminal message is clear: 'I may be an affluent, successful Westminster politician, but I am also a local grassroots campaigner and I can lead a rainbow coalition.'

The headline grabbing parts of his manifesto were pages five and 10.

On the former of these, he supports a 'people's veto', whereby a petition could force a public vote on any Parliamentary Bill if 2.5 million signatories were collected within 100 days.

This, of course, makes nonsense of LibDem opposition to a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, but does at least show some fresh thinking about how to engage a disillusioned electorate with the political process.

It certainly has better traction than a tedious restatement of the party's commitment to proportional representation.

Trident tested

Trident - an explosive issue

But the real sparks have been flying over Huhne's denunciation of Trident.

Barely six months ago, he backed Ming against the party's anti-nuclear lobby in a tightly contested party conference vote that the beleaguered Campbell only just won.

Many of us expected Chris to resign from the Shadow Cabinet and lead the charge against Ming's "soft Atlanticism".

If he had done so, he would have won the vote and ended Ming Campbell's leadership there and then.

But unusually, the risk-taking radical preferred discretion to valour.

At a packed hustings last week, it was on the Trident issue that Nick and Chris really went for each other.

Young Liberal Luke Oakeshott (son of Huhne's principal benefactor Lord Oakeshott - a coincidence, I'm sure) demanded to know how an expensive replacement of Trident could be justified while our conventional forces in Afghanistan and Iraq were trying to survive without rudimentary supplies.

Clegg stuck aggressively to the Campbell line and queried Huhne's ability to spell out a costed alternative.

But it's hard to paint Huhne as an irresponsible peacenik - he was an SDP cold warrior in the 1980s.

Barking mad

When Chris says it would be 'barking mad' to renew our nuclear deterrent on the basis of a system that was designed to deal with the Soviet Union and ties us irrevocably to the United States, he is not only hitting the g-spot of the vast bulk of LibDem members but is surely speaking for a substantial proportion of the electorate as well.

But Nick's triumph this week was to nail the lie that he is a Tory in a yellow rosette.

The Huhne camp is determined to paint him as 'David Cameron's stunt double'.

Martin Luther King
'I have a dream...' Clegg's inspiration

And whilst Chris is being careful not to launch any full frontal personal attacks himself, his chief spinmeisters will not waste a second in telling you that this is essentially a battle between 'centre-left' and 'centre- right'.

Clegg outflanked this attack by declaring he would be willing to defy the law rather than comply with a compulsory ID card scheme.

He will be pressed to clarify exactly what he means by this, but the overall tone is clear.


He looks to the likes of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parkes for his liberal inspiration - not to Margaret Thatcher.

And the Huhne campaign received another blow as the week drew to a close.

Activists' darling and Party President, Simon Hughes, has now publicly plumped for Clegg.

Chris's early hopes that the senior left-wingers of the party would flock to his banner have been dashed.

Steve Webb - the intellectual conscience of the party's left - toyed with the idea of having a tilt at the leadership himself, but has also chosen to back Nick.

Chris Huhne may have been better off with either Webb or Hughes running themselves.

This would have enabled him to pursue a strategy of "triangulation", placing himself in the political centre.

The danger for Chris is that he will now be persuaded to redouble his efforts to appeal to centre-left LibDem members.

That might appease his client-base of hard-core activists and conference delegates, but it won't be enough to win an outright majority amongst the tens of thousands of armchair members.


Last week, I was hoping for some fireworks.

At least now, I have seen a few sparklers.

But the major issue that could define this leadership election - and light the blue touch paper - is buried away in pages 7 and 8 of Huhne's manifesto.

Here he explicitly rules out vouchers or insurance schemes in public services, advocating instead greater powers being exercised by local authorities.

The centre-right "Orange Bookers" in Clegg's camp are known to favour the adoption of vouchers, insurance schemes or a mixture of the two.

But, at the moment, this support for a more free market solution is a love that dare not speak its name.

Nick should spell out explicit policy in this area, rather than seeing the leadership election as something he needs to get through before addressing radical public sector reform.

If he has the courage to do so, then the LibDems could well ignite a debate that goes far beyond the confines of who gets to lead Britain's third party.

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.

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