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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 March 2006, 09:53 GMT
The new Lib Dem leader's challenge
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

The Liberal Democrat leadership election was marked by what was arguably the greatest crisis in the party's recent history.

Chris Huhne, Sir Menzies Campbell and Simon Hughes
New leader has to put party back on track
The leader who had just taken the party to its best election result for 80 years was forced out by his colleagues over his drinking, one candidate was embroiled in a sex scandal and another forced to apologise if he had misled anyone over his sexuality.

So the first task facing the new leader is to start the fightback after a leadership contest which has failed to claim the headlines for positive reasons.

Former leader Lord Paddy Ashdown spelled out the challenge - with the party facing a battle for the political centre ground with both Conservatives and Labour.

Lord Ashdown, who endorsed Sir Menzies Campbell, admitted the party faced a hard time in the short term but offered the new leader an optimistic picture of a future of, at worst, power sharing and, at best, outright power.

The stunning Dunfermline by-election victory last month seemed to give some substance to that optimism, suggesting that despite the negative headlines the party was still attracting voters.

But few doubt that the new leader will need to start rebuilding the party's image which, under Charles Kennedy, focused on trust and openness.

Common purpose

It will not be easy, but the weekend spring conference in Harrogate will offer the perfect opportunity for the leader to start that process with his first keynote speech.

But there are other major issues that need to be addressed - most crucially the direction in which the party will now be taken.

Lord Paddy Ashdown
Ashdown supported Sir Menzies

The leadership campaign was relatively free of personal wrangling and all agreed that there was a need to re-unify the party once it was over.

That message of unity and common purpose is also bound to be sent out from the Harrogate conference.

The challenge is to resolve the long-running battle between the so-called social liberals and economic liberals.

In simple terms that is a split between those who emphasise the issues of civil liberties and state-run public services and those supporters of the Orange Book who have adopted a more market oriented, some say right-wing agenda.

Charles Kennedy was widely regarded as having not tackled this split - the challenge for the new leader is to do so without alienating one of those wings.

Both worlds

But the battle over whether the party becomes the new left-wing option, to the left of Labour, or continues to fight on that crowded middle ground has to be ended.

Charles Kennedy
Kennedy was forced out

During the campaign, Simon Hughes was seen as the left wing champion while Chris Huhne won the support of many of the Orange Bookers. Sir Menzies Campbell attempted to avoid either label.

But all insisted the divide was not as simple or irreconcilable as some had suggested and there is always room for a bit of cherry picking between the two agendas in a bid to get what is seen as the best of both worlds.

Electorally, the task is to build on recent by-election victories, notably Dunfermline, and see that translate back into a sense of optimism over the next general election.

Some of that optimism had already worn off in the wake of the good, but not as good as some had hoped, result at the 2005 General Election.

If David Cameron continues to move onto the centre ground with policies deliberately designed to attract former Lib Dem voters, it could be difficult to restore that sense of hope for the future.

So the new leader will want to map out a distinct agenda - and that may well take some considerable time and involve a wide-ranging policy review, originally set up by Mr Kennedy.

Then there is a frontbench reshuffle in which the leader will need to give the other two contenders senior portfolios while also offering jobs to representatives of the different wings of the party and bring on some of the young new MPs who entered the Commons at the last election

As ever, for any new leader, the real struggle starts now.

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk




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