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Time of decision

I've been less engaged with this year's Lib Dem leadership contest than last year's, basically because work and real life have kept me busier; I've been enjoying my new job (which has meant I am posting less here generally) and our changed family situation has absorbed most of the rest of my energies.

But the ballot papers have arrived, and it is a straight choice between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. It is a much more difficult choice than last year. We all know that the problem with Lib Dems is that some of them are mad, some of them are boring, and some are both; last year, it was easy enough to rule out voting for Simon Hughes on the first of these grounds and Menȝies Campbell on the second. But neither Clegg nor Huhne is either mad or boring, so that filter is no use to me.

Both, frankly, would be acceptable leaders for me. Clegg was an exact contemporary of mine as an undergraduate at Cambridge, at a college next door to mine; I don't remember him, though he remembers me due to my visibility in student politics. Both became MEPs the year we moved to Belgium, 1999, and I ran into both of them from time to time at party events; I remember on one such occasion a party aide glancing at Clegg and Huhne chatting on the other side of the room, and muttering to me that between the two of them they had the vast majority of the aggregate political talent of the Lib Dem MEPs, which seems to me monstrously unfair to the others (but I will come back to that point later). Their policy offerings are pretty similar. There is one issue, Trident, where my own feelings lie closer to Huhne's line than to Clegg's, but it's not in itself a decisive issue for me (and as someone pointed out, it is anyway the party conference that decides policy rather than the leader).

In the end, I'm making my decision based on what other people think. Nick Clegg's support group on Facebook has 845 members, of whom only six are on my friends list; Huhne's is smaller in total (567) but 13 are on my friends list. Both campaign websites list people whose opinions I respect. Huhne has, for instance, my old Cambridge contacts David Howarth (now MP) and Andrew Duff (now MEP) not to speak of brisingamen and David Steel. Clegg's list is also formidable, including Paddy Ashdown, Shirley Williams, burkesworks, about half of the MPs and more than half of the MEPs.

It's that very last point that decides it for me. In the end, all we can judge from the campaign is how good the candidates are at running leadership campaigns. The one thing that became clear to me during the collapse of Charles Kennedy's leadership was that those working most closely with the party leader - those who are, in fact, looking to be led on a daily basis - are the ones best placed to judge whether he or she is doing a good job. They may get it wrong - the parliamentary party backed Beith over Ashdown, if I remember correctly, in 1988. But where the stakes are otherwise equal, I'll listen to the views of those who are more on the inside than me.

The killer statistic is this: of the ten Lib Dems elected to the European Parliament in 1999, all but Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are still MEPs. The other eight, who worked alongside them in the parliament for the full five-year term of 1999-2004, have declared their voting intentions as follows:
Backing Huhne: Andrew Duff, Elspeth Attwooll, Liz Lynne
Backing Clegg: Diana Wallis, Graham Watson, Emma Nicholson, Chris Davies, Sarah Ludford. (Plus also Bill Newton-Dunn, elected as a Tory in 1999 but defected to the Lib Dems in 2000.)

Despite my friend's comment about them, I have considerable respect for the political abilities of the vast majority of the above-named. On aggregate, they are backing Clegg, and therefore so am I.

I think. But it will be a pretty close race.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 1st, 2007 08:36 pm (UTC)
>>Their policy offerings are pretty similar. There is one issue, Trident, where my own feelings lie closer to Huhne's line than to Clegg's, but it's not in itself a decisive issue for me (and as someone pointed out, it is anyway the party conference that decides policy rather than the leader).<<

Given that, and that most people won't be able to go 'I trust person X's judgement on this because of x,y or Z' is there actually enough difference between the two of them for people to make an informed choice?
Dec. 2nd, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC)
is there actually enough difference between the two of them for people to make an informed choice?

Well, that's for each voter to decide. No doubt others will detect crucial differences of policy or style which are enough to determine their choice!
Dec. 2nd, 2007 02:34 am (UTC)
Looks as if Nick Clegg's either got it in the bag, or he's got a very wealthy backer on the betting exchanges; 1/5 Clegg, 100/30 Huhne on Betfair. He's also well ahead in the YouGov poll due to be broadcast on Sky tomorrow; leaked figures show Nick leads by 56% to 44% (the sample was of 678 party members, of which I was one who was asked). If that is the case, I'll be happy enough; despite Huhne dramatically upping his game during this campaign (his actions over the David Abrahams affair were smartly executed and correct, most notably), I still don't feel that the honourable member for Eastleigh will ever be perceived by the all-important floating voters as anything other than a vaguely left-wing, slightly dull policy wonk. Being "endorsed" by none other than the appalling Labour harridan Polly Toynbee in the flier sent by Susan Bowles MEP to party members this week won't exactly have won him too many new friends in the party either.

Of course the real star in recent weeks has been Vince "High Voltage" Cable. His crack about Brown "turning from Stalin to Mr. Bean" is one of the sharpest political put-downs since Lloyd Bentsen's "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" reply to Mr. Potatoe Head during the '88 US Vice-Presidential debate. The man's one of our biggest assets, no matter who wins the race; proof that "old" doesn't necessarily also mean "boring" or "incompetent".

Edited at 2007-12-02 02:38 am (UTC)
Dec. 2nd, 2007 03:45 pm (UTC)
I think that the combination of Clegg and Cable at the top of the party has the potential to be quite potent electorally. Cable is too right-wing for my liking, but he also makes George Osborne look like the braying public schoolboy he is, which might make the difference in some affluent marginals.

Huhne deserves credit for standing last time and thus refusing to go along with the cosy but wrong consensus that the party needed a 'period of stability' with Campbell. However, I'm not convinced by his left-wing credentials, the 'calamity Clegg' business was silly and counter-productive, and although he will almost certainly retain his seat it is marginal enough to be distracting in an election campaign.
Dec. 2nd, 2007 11:51 am (UTC)
Was standing next to David Howarth and his slightly battered Chris Huhne lapel sticker on a Tube platform on Thursday...
Dec. 3rd, 2007 12:55 am (UTC)
Does Campbell actually spell his name with a 'ȝ', or it an absurd affectation of yours? Have you asked him?
I read the post ages ago when you discussed it, and the derivation of the spelling is interesting, but I'm strongly of the opinion that Menzies is generally spelled with a 'z'.
Dec. 3rd, 2007 05:47 am (UTC)
No, you're quite right about both the general and the particular spelling; it is indeed an absurd affectation.
Dec. 3rd, 2007 10:15 am (UTC)
Nothing wrong with absurd affectations, of course (see also my note on extracting square roots).
Dec. 3rd, 2007 12:58 am (UTC)
The Lib Dems must surely hope to regain some of their fairly recent glories and become a serious political force. For that to happen, they must elect Clegg, because nobody can spell or pronounce the other bloke's name. Sad but true. Who was the last PM with a dodgy surname?
Dec. 3rd, 2007 05:52 am (UTC)
Attlee must have seemed like a slightly odd name until people got used to it, surely?

Apart from him I think we have to go back to Viscount Goderich, who bears out your point as he had the second second shortest term in office of any British prime minister...
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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