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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 March 2006, 16:00 GMT
Ming the King pledges change
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

He started as the favourite with heavyweight support, wobbled and slipped, then came back with a thump.

Sir Menzies Campbell

Now the 64-year-old new Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, has got to display those qualities that led his party grassroots to chose him over his two rivals.

They are undoubtedly experience, weight, stability and respect. And, all Lib Dems will hope, an ability to unite the party and add new credibility to it in parliament and beyond.

He beat left-wing traditional Liberal Simon Hughes, who failed for the second time to win the top job, and relatively unknown newcomer Chris Huhne who, as a result of the contest, has put himself firmly on the Lib Dem map.

Now Sir Menzies will need to move the party on from the crisis suffered as a result of the leadership election and focus instead on the positives that can produce such sensational results as the Dunfermline by-election.

There will be continuing questions over his age and his commitment to remaining in post for any length of time.

He took those questions head on, promising to fight through the next election and beyond, as long as he was able to.

Two wings

He also declared he was indeed a safe pair of hands, as often claimed as a disguised criticism, but someone who was prepared to take risks to win power and modernise the party.

Chris Huhne
Huhne has placed down a marker for future

He pressed all the right Liberal Democrat buttons with buzz words on poverty, fairness and freedom, environmental protection and democratic revolution.

But what he did not do was address directly the biggest question facing the post-Charles Kennedy Lib Dems - where do they now turn, left or right?

They are labels he and his party would undoubtedly reject but, as a shorthand, they can help explain the differences between the two wings of the party.

Simon Hughes would have taken the party to the left with, very likely a tax-raising agenda. Chris Huhne might have pursued a more free-market, right-wing agenda.

Sir Menzies always refused to be labelled and has now pledged himself to bringing together the best of both worlds. Indeed all three candidates insisted they would seek to unite the differing wings with a common agenda.

Media attention

But he was not specific on policies on, for example, taxation, using the on-going policy review as a reason for the pause.

Simon Hughes
Hughes would have moved to left
So, to that extent, it remains unclear precisely how the Liberal Democrats will change as a result of this leadership election, although he characterised both Labour and the Tories as the forces of conservatism.

What is certain is that, with an 8,000 majority, Sir Menzies can claim to have a mandate to push ahead with whatever agenda he decides to pursue.

He can also be assured of a flurry of media attention as a result of the leadership campaign and its fallout and he has the opportunity to use that to his advantage.

That will start with the party's spring conference in Harrogate this weekend, during which he will make his first major speech as leader.

Delegates will look for some clearer signs during that rally of exactly where their party will now be led.


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