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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 17:33 GMT
Simon Hughes: Home Affairs

Nick Assinder

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes has won himself a powerful reputation as a bit of a rebel.

He is firmly from the left wing of the old Liberal party and led the opposition to Paddy Ashdown's unofficial deal with Tony Blair.


He is widely liked both within his party and across the political divide

And for many of those old activists he is virtually seen as the remaining keeper of their faith.

He is always ready to be outspoken on the things he believes in and has, on more than one occasion, irritated his leader. Many believe he makes a habit of it.

He once warned Mr Ashdown against becoming Mr Blair's "lapdog."

On another occasion he suggested that current leader Charles Kennedy was not great on policy.

This habit of outspokenness has won him many admirers, particularly amongst grass roots Lib Dems.

But it has also seen colleagues worrying that he can, on occasion, be gaffe prone.

Strong contender

Despite all this, he is widely liked both within his party and across the political divide.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy was not amused
When he stood in the leadership election to replace Mr Ashdown in 1999, he was firmly seen as the most radical of all the candidates and was one of the strongest contenders.

Many believed - rightly as it turned out - that the contest would end up a two horse race between him and Mr Kennedy.

And Mr Hughes' supporters were convinced that, if he lost to Kennedy, he would be made deputy leader as consolation prize.


If the party does badly at the next election he will be in a powerful position to speak for the radical wing and drive the Lib Dems in a new policy direction

However Mr Kennedy was said to be more than irritated by comments Mr Hughes made about his potential leadership style and the party's prospects at the next general election.

When Mr Kennedy won the leadership he surprised many, and undoubtedly disappointed Mr Hughes, by leaving Alan Beith as his deputy.

Mr Hughes was given an alternative consolation prize, with the job he had also wanted as the party's home affairs spokesman.

None of this, however, has dimmed his enthusiasm for his party or his particular brief and for many party activists he is still seen as a powerful check on the leadership, should they ever need it.

Missed his chance

Before the leadership contest he was widely being tipped as his party's candidate for London mayor.

And there is no doubt that he seriously considered the possibility - until the greater prize offered itself.

In February 1999 he finally announced he was not going to seek the mayor's job.

He did not rule out standing for the job at some future time and he is clearly still a potential future leadership contender.

But the unfortunate coincidence of those two events has led some to believe that he may have missed his chance for real power.

Potential future leadership contender?
Potential future leadership contender?
He is currently 49 so, depending on what happens to the Lib Dems at the next general election - and most believe it would take serious losses to undermine Mr Kennedy's position - a future leadership election may still be more than five years away.

More immediately, Mr Hughes will continue to exert a significant influence over the leadership and may yet be promoted to deputy leader.

If the party does badly at the next election he will be in a powerful position to speak for the radical wing and drive the Lib Dems in a new policy direction.

If Tony Blair again holds out the hand of friendship to the party, in an attempt to forge some sort of post-election Lib-Lab pact, his views will be central to the fierce debate that would inevitably spark.

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Related stories:

20 Jul 00 |  UK Politics
Simon says 'Is the affair over?'
24 Sep 99 |  UK Politics
Hughes rewarded in Lib Dem reshuffle
16 Jun 99 |  UK Politics
Hughes completes Lib Dem field

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