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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 December 2007, 10:08 GMT
Lib Dem leadership: Cable fibre
Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood
Former head of media for the Liberal Democrats

Vince Cable MP
Mr Cable had Opposition MPs in hysterics

The Liberal Democrats must be starting to ask themselves why there wasn't more support to make Vince Cable the permanent party leader - either back in early 2006 or this time round.

Vince now faces the slightly dubious fate of being recorded in history as the Liberal leader with the shortest ever tenure - just a couple of months - but perhaps the most impressive ratio of "hits" to "misses".

While Clegg and Huhne joke that the modest improvement in the party's poll ratings shows that the Lib Dems might want to consider permanently holding leadership elections, the truth is that the growing support for the party can only be credited to the rave reviews received by the sure-footed performance of acting leader Dr Cable.

His observation at this week Prime Minister's Questions that Gordon Brown had morphed from being Joseph Stalin into being Mr Bean was the latest in an impressively lengthy series of PR triumphs for Vince.

His tactics and style at PMQs is an object lesson in how the third party leader should act - simultaneously dignified but deadly.

Previously, Vince had made the headlines by boycotting a banquet at Buckingham Palace in protest at the Saudi Arabians' human rights record.

He has also successfully positioned himself as the leading critic of the government's handling of the Northern Rock crisis.

Huhne and Clegg
Vote for me? Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg shake hands
Rumour has it that some of Cable's senior advisers are trying to rein him in. They shouldn't. Vince has shown an unerring ability to make the political weather, which is just what the Liberal Democrats need.

If this election was taking place in the United States of America, a campaign to draft Vince Cable as the next leader by organising a write-in campaign would have built up a serious head of steam by now.

And the real concern for whoever takes on the mantle of the leadership in a couple of weeks time is whether they will pale in comparison.

Play it like you would in Las Vegas

With the Liberal Democrat leadership election reaching such a fevered pitch, I've taken the opportunity to escape the Westminster hothouse for a few days' break in Las Vegas.

And the next Liberal Democrat leader could do a lot worse than follow the first rule that budding poker players learn in Nevada's city of sin.

The root to success in the Las Vegas poker rooms is to play a "tight, aggressive" game and to pick off the "loose, passive" players.

Tight, aggressive gamblers only play a small proportion of hands - they fold all their marginal, mediocre holdings. But the hands they do play, they bet heavily on. Loose, passive players tend to bet on far too many hands, but without a great deal of conviction.

The next Liberal Democrat leader will have to adopt a tight, aggressive strategy - picking up just a small number of three or four issues to truly make his own.

A scattergun approach of campaigning on every issue, but with little of real interest to say, will only result in the Lib Dem voice being drowned out.

At this stage, neither Nick Clegg nor Chris Huhne has really marked out the key themes and issues which would define their leadership. Come the close of poll, they will have to do.

What if you win?

While the two camps will be desperately seeking to convert the surprisingly high number of undecided members right up until the December 15th deadline, they also need to start focusing on what they would do in the event of victory.

The leadership race so far...

I understand that both the Clegg and Huhne campaigns have established teams to consider their strategies for their first "one hundred days" in office. Any plan they come up with will have to be considerably more imaginative than the similarly titled document prepared for Ming Campbell when he became leader last year.

The Campbell document consisted of a whole series of deeply dull, highly detailed speeches on a very wide range of policy areas. Even if it had been carried out in full - which fortunately it wasn't - the strategy would have resulted in virtually no media exposure. And, above all else, it is publicity that the new leader will be fighting for.

Both Nick and Chris will be told that they need to "hit the ground running", but because of the scheduling of this leadership election, this cliché is only half true.

The new leader will have a welcome, and well earned, Christmas break almost immediately upon taking up the seals of office and they can use this time to plan a media assault in the early weeks of 2008.

They will need to come up with a few well-thought-out, eye catching announcements to be rolled out in the run up to the party's Spring conference next March.

And they will need to decide what key themes and messages they want to get across at that conference. A tight, aggressive strategy would mean not attempting to do too much, but doing a handful of things very well. This weekend sees the first officially commissioned opinion poll of party members, which should give a pretty clear indication of the likely winner.

First poll

A more limited survey - conducted by my own think tank, Progressive Vision - of 116 party activists, put Clegg at 35%, Huhne at 33% with 32% undecided.

That appears to confirm the widespread view that Nick is ahead, but that it's not in the bag for him yet.

But whether it's Nick or Chris who emerges as leader in a couple of weeks of time, the first phone call they should make is to Vince Cable - to ask him what he's been taking over the past few weeks and to see if they can bottle it.

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 02 December 2007 at 12.00 GMT on BBC One. Send us your comments using the form below:

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