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Last Updated: Friday, 23 November 2007, 17:33 GMT
Lib Dem leadership: voting begins

Huhne and Clegg
Vote for me? Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg shake hands
It's make your mind up time, folks.

If, like me, you're part of the 0.1% of the electorate who are members of the Lib Dems, your ballot paper should have arrived.

Of the 64,727 voting papers sent out, about 20,000 will probably be in the post by the end of the weekend.

They will then trickle in over the next couple of weeks before a final surge - from those presently indifferent or genuinely undecided - in the run-up to the 15th December deadline.

From the scant information available, a substantial number seem to fall into the "not sure" category.

One member I spoke to was so conflicted about whom to vote for that he was seriously considering auctioning off his ballot paper on ebay.

Not such a calamity

After the near catastrophe of the "Calamity Clegg" briefing document on last week's Politics Show, Chris Huhne has stabilised his campaign.

Some thought there would be a flurry of defections to Nick, but that hasn't happened.

The unseemly episode may just have won Nick Clegg some additional support amongst some "undecideds".

But, overall, the incident has probably just confirmed people's preconceived ideas about the two candidates.

Team Huhne

Huhne's supporters say that whilst issuing the document was a screw-up, Chris dealt with the matter in an unflappable way on live television.

Huhne and Clegg
Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg on the Politics Show
It doesn't get much tougher for a politician than having a total surprise sprung on them midway through an interview.

The Huhnistas believe the strength of their man shone through - he pressed home the key points of the document, whilst half-apologising for its title and barely allowed Nick Clegg to get a word in edgeways.

This is the sort of "take no prisoners", street-fighting, skin-as-tough-as-a-rhino bloke that the Liberal Democrats desperately need, claim Chris's fans.

Foul-ups will always happen, the mark of a good leader is how you deal with them.

Team Clegg says...

But Nick's backers will say that the whole affair shows why Huhne has the wrong temperament to lead the party.

He isn't collegiate, they will say. He is too personally ambitious. He's shown that he'll fight dirty at a time when the party needs to come together. He comes across as a bully.

Those who distrusted Chris Huhne before the infamous interview with Jon Sopel, probably distrust him even more now.

But those who admire his raw determination and nerve are likely to be firmer still in their support for him.

Back in the rut, or back in the groove

The fallout from the Politics Show led to feverish anticipation as to what might happen on Tuesday's Newsnight.

But the much-hyped showdown with Paxman was a yawn-athon compared to the high jinx of Sunday's bust-up with Sopel.

Firstly, the debate got shuffled down the running order as the country reacted with disbelief to the Revenue and Customs losing sensitive data on 25,000,000 British citizens.

Secondly, Jeremy Paxman asked a bizarre series of yes/no questions which only helped to show how much the two candidates agree - rather than highlighting their differences.

Nick Clegg was more decisive than he had been on Sunday - and showed he wasn't as easy to push around as some of his critics claim.

The leadership race so far...

Chris Huhne though probably just edged the contest.

He literally put his hand up to criticism about the "Calamity Clegg" dossier, but not without returning to his central attack on his opponent.

His key point was that the problem wasn't so much whether Nick was unsure of his own stance on various issues, but that he had left a "trail of confusion" in the media.

Straw polls

Huhne's week also ended on a high note with a straw poll taken by the Guardian at the Cambridge hustings on Wednesday night showing him ahead of Clegg by a 2-1 margin.

But such polls are notoriously unreliable, and the messages coming out of both camps are rather different.

Team Clegg claims their man has a small but significant lead based on their canvass returns.

Huhne's team say that the race is neck and neck.

Votes slipping away

Whoever wins will have to tackle one major issue - an unhelpful statistic that has escaped the attention of many journalists.

The number of ballot papers issued - less than 65,000 - shows the party has lost more than 10% of its members since Ming Campbell was elected last Spring and now has less than 100 members per Parliamentary constituency.

ballot paper
Far fewer ballots have been issued this time
Protestations from the Liberal Democrats that all political parties are witnessing declining membership and that last year's total was artificially boosted - because it came so soon after a General Election - are not wholly convincing.

Back in 1999, when Charles Kennedy was elected leader, membership stood at over 82,000.

For a party that prides itself on its grassroots support, the new leader will need to reverse this alarming drop-off in fee-paying members.

For now, however, the leadership contest has finally twitched into life.

And for all the sound and fury of the past few days, the position probably remains as it did at the outset.

The evidence suggests that Nick Clegg is ahead, but not by much more than a wafer thin margin.

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 Sunday 25 November 2007 at 12.00 GMT on BBC One. Send us your comments using the form below:

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