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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 17:25 GMT
Nick Harvey: Health

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

When Paddy Ashdown stunned the Liberal Democrats in 1999 by announcing he was standing down as leader he refused to anoint a successor.

Such pronouncements from on high can often prove the kiss of death to contenders.

It is hard enough at the best of times to find a Liberal Democrat who voters recognise and Mr Harvey had certainly not made a huge impact on the public

But few in the party's inner circle were in any doubt about Mr Ashdown's personal favourite - the party's campaigns manager, Nick Harvey.

Mr Harvey, who holds former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe's old North Devon seat, had impressed his leader with his astute and independent-minded advice.

And despite initial differences - mostly over Mr Harvey's robust euroscepticism - it was claimed Mr Ashdown had gradually manoeuvred him into position where he could launch a powerful leadership campaign.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown
Ashdown: refused to name a favourite
To many he seemed a strange choice. While he had won widespread respect for his political skills and pleasant, straightforward manner, he was not seen as the most charismatic personality in the party.

It is hard enough at the best of times to find a Liberal Democrat who voters recognise and Mr Harvey had certainly not made a huge impact on the public.

Europe U-turn

So most observers believed he had little chance of beating the likes of Charles Kennedy, Simon Hughes or Menzies Campbell.

Nonetheless he signalled that he was ready to join the race and the whisper soon went around, rightly or wrongly, that Mr Ashdown favoured him.

A bit of a bandwagon started to roll but suddenly stalled after he executed what was seen by many as a pre-vote U-turn.

Mr Harvey's strong euroscepticism had always been at odds with his party's pro-European, pro-single currency stand. And it went down well in his constituency.

But as the leadership contest warmed up, he changed tack and advocated Britain joining the euro.

This sparked a storm of protest and saw him the subject of demonstrations by constituents, led by farmers, who accused him of breaking an election pledge.

They picketed his local surgery and demanded he stand down to fight a by-election on his new policy.

But Mr Harvey was defiant. He refused to back down, insisting he had not changed his mind on the euro but simply recognised the need to be "realistic" about it.

"It came into being on 1 January and we can't stick our heads in the sand and turn our back on what's happened.

"It's a completely different proposition now that 11 countries are in, and I think that really does change the thing fundamentally."

Continues to impress

What effect this row had on his leadership chances is an open question, but it did his wider image some damage and, in the end, he withdrew from the contest.

Liberal Democrat MP Menzies Campbell
Campbell: Lib Dem veteran
He had previously signalled he would stand aside in any case for veteran Lib Dem Menzies Campbell.

When the front-runner, Charles Kennedy won, he gave Mr Harvey the job of health spokesman where he continues to impress his colleagues.

He already has a successful record in politics and has served as spokesman on transport and trade and industry as well as acting in the crucial role as elections and campaigns manager.

He attracts support from the old, Liberal radicals in the party and is a supporter of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International.

He claims his greatest ambition is "to see Britain's corrupt political system bust right open and replaced with a modern, constructive, pluralist alternative".

At 39 he is certainly still young enough to be viewed as a potential future leader but most of his colleagues agree he needs to boost his profile.



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