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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 November 2007, 10:15 GMT
Could there be a Nick Huhne?
Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood
Former head of media for the Liberal Democrats

Lib Dem logo
Either candidate should be a strong leader for the flight ahead

In the latest missive from Mark Littlewood on the Liberal Democrat leadership battle, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are put through a severe media grilling - could the winner be Nick Huhne..?

As the Liberal Democrat leadership campaign enters its crucial week, there's a feeling that some momentum is building behind Chris Huhne.

But with just days to go before the ballot papers are issued, there is also the sense that he is still behind and needs to continue to gather additional supporters at a very rapid pace to beat Nick Clegg to the finishing post.

The most crucial sixty minutes so far was the BBC's Question Time special on Thursday night.

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

Westminster watchers had their notepads ready to tally up which candidate struck the most blows and to carefully monitor any hits that landed below the belt.

The common consensus is that Chris emerged as the winner - although not by a crushing margin.

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg - bookies' favourite... but what about the punters?

Nick had an early stumble when David Dimbleby dredged up a quote from some time ago in which Clegg had apparently dubbed Huhne an "opportunist".

The bookies' favourite confessed he didn't recognise the quote and so found it difficult to explain why he now disagreed with it.

He took some time to recover his composure, and only really hit his stride in the second half of the programme.

Huhne honed

Huhne seemed more relaxed from the outset and was sure-footed on policy questions.

The clash over replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system - one of the few areas of "clear yellow water" between the two candidates - brought Chris the biggest cheer of the night when he finished an impassioned plea for downsizing Britain's nuclear arsenal by saying that the Iraq war shows that it is not always in our national interest to march to the White House's tune.

Football in goal
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There's been a shift in the mood amongst the Westminster media, with one journalist telling me that if it had been a football match, the score would have been Huhne 3 Clegg 1.

But this hasn't been enough to persuade very many people that Chris Huhne is now the likelier to inherit the Liberal Democrat crown, merely that Nick Clegg is no longer the shoo-in that some of them first thought.

The Clegg team remain confident that their man has the right skills to reach out beyond the Liberal Democrats' core vote.

On a more typical Question Time programme - which wouldn't focus so much on issues that obsess LibDems such as proportional representation - Nick's ability to appeal to the wider electorate would probably have got a better airing.

A straw poll of two LibDem-leaning voters - my parents - may prove this point.

My mother, who always votes in elections but is certainly not a political obsessive, thought that Nick Clegg had a touch of media sparkle and a good television manner.

My father, who is more politically interested, was impressed by Chris Huhne's strong grasp of policy.

The good news for Camp Clegg is that there are probably many more voters a bit like my mother.

Chris Huhne
Chris Huhne has a popularist line on nuclear arms

The bad news is that there are probably many more Liberal Democrat members - who will actually decide this contest - a bit like my father.

Apart from an anecdote that one Liberal Democrat member in the Question Time audience was overheard saying that he had decided to switch from Nick to Chris after seeing the debate, we just don't know how the vast bulk of LibDems will have been influenced - if at all.

Winners and losers

It's well worth remembering that previous perceived winners of Question Time leadership specials - David Davis in 2005 (against David Cameron), and Simon Hughes in the 2006 LibDem contest (against Ming Campbell and Chris Huhne), all went on to lose the actual leadership election decisively.

And there's still plenty of time for both men to set out their stall.

The BBC is to host three more high-profile hustings in the run-up to the ballot papers being issued next Wednesday.

The two contenders will go head to head on Radio 4's The World This Weekend.

And on Sunday's Politics Show, I'll be pressing both candidates to take a bolder and more radical approach to policy and strategy than they have so far.

Jeremy Paxman
Newsnight could be a bruising affair

Finally, Nick and Chris face a grilling from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight on Tuesday.

But for all the importance of the fight over the airwaves, one of the most vital forms of communication to the membership will be a few sides of paper, sent out with the ballots next week.

Each LibDem member will receive not just their ballot paper and a return envelope but two sides of A4 from each camp.

The candidates had to file these mini-manifestos at the end of last month, so they won't have been able to reflect any of the developments in the campaign over the past few weeks.

But they will still have real importance as the floating voter's hand hovers over the ballot paper.

In 2006, Chris Huhne's effort was pretty slap-dash, and this may have cost him dear. The Huhne camp needs to be sure that they have paid more attention to their artwork, design and layout this time.

Nick Huhne?

The really good news for the Liberal Democrats is that both contenders are widely perceived as very strong candidates for the top job.

The flipside is that this makes the choice a very difficult - even agonising - one for many members.

Both men have joked, that in the light of improving party poll ratings since the contest began, they should consider a job-share.

And if you could morph the two men into a single person - combining Nick's easy manner and telegenic sparkle with Chris's experience, intellect and policy expertise, then the LibDems would have the perfect leader.

But unfortunately, "Nick Huhne" isn't on the ballot paper.

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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