Tuesday 18 December 2007

Clegg wins Lib Dem leadership

So once more, the smoke from the eco-friendly guns has cleared, the most snoozeworthy leadership election in years has been concluded, and Nick Clegg has emerged as the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The margin of his victory, a matter of just 511 votes out of the total 41,465 votes cast by the party's members, will not be a source of comfort to the young leader, who is likely to do a lot of looking over his shoulder to check for knives bearing Chris Huhne’s fingerprints. Given that Clegg has previously indicated that he will reshuffle his front bench team as early as possible (ostensibly to promote new ‘talent’ to the Lib Dem front benches), expect big jobs to be offered to both Huhne and Deputy Leader Vince Cable, following the latter’s notable performances at Prime Minister’s Questions.

What may concern grassroots Lib Dems however is not the low mandate of Clegg to lead – barely 1% over Huhne's total – but the relatively limp campaign of the new leader, certainly in comparison with the vibrant and aggressive campaign of Chris Huhne. In particular, his inability to fight back from the ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing drafted by Huhne’s campaign team will not give cause for confidence to Yellow Streakers hoping for the new leader’s performances in the House to match those of caretaker leader Vince Cable. Given the high number of votes cast early on in the contest when Clegg was still an overwhelming favourite, the likelihood is that if there had been a bar on sending in votes prior to the contest getting properly under way, the party would be hailing a very different result.

On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that Clegg is a smooth operator, and will have noted the amount of damage which the aformentioned briefing did to Huhne’s own campaign, with many Lib Dems privately expressing indignation at such an open attack on a potential party leader and talisman. His charm and appeal to centre-left thinkers is undeniable, and he will be anxious to win back the numbers who have haemmorhaged away to the Conservative fold.

Whether the Lib Dems have elected themselves someone who can even come close to matching Cable at PMQs and give Brown and Cameron a run for their money, we’ll all just have to watch this space…

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