Guess what? I thought I'd write about the leadership…

by Stephen Tall on December 7, 2007

‘Aggressive Huhne could run it close’ – at least, so says Guardian political commentator, Michael White:

Conventional wisdom continues to insist that Nick Clegg, frontrunner to succeed Ming Campbell since his hara-kiri in October, will win when the result is declared on December 18. It will be 55% to 45%, the sages predict. But straws in the wind, not all floated by the Huhne camp, suggest that their man’s aggressive headline grabbing, coupled with his strong showing in head-to-head hustings, may make for a closer result, even a shock win.

White also draws an interesting comparison between the current Clegg-Huhne contest, and the Blair-Brown leadership-election-that-never-was in 1994. No prizes for guessing which is portrayed as Brown, and which as Blair:

At the Granita restaurant in 1994 Brown declined to fight Blair openly for the leadership. He could only win by splitting the party, he told himself as he geared up to fight him in private. Huhne’s critics complain that he has done a Gordon and attacked a fellow-moderniser as a crypto-Tory. That is what underdogs do and in Huhne’s case it has probably not done much harm. Apart from that leaked “Calamity” email it has been a dull contest. Overdogs, who expect to inherit, know they don’t want or need too much broken china to clean up. It has made Clegg a bit risk-averse, lacking in aggression or initiative, a tactic which has disappointed some admirers.

This overdog/underdog comparison chimes with some data Lib Dem Voice has been sent (hat-tip: Iain Dale and Julian Nicholson) analysing the media mentions each candidate has attracted since the contest began in mid-October.

For the first five weeks, Clegg was consistently ahead, attracting almost double the coverage of Huhne. By the last full week of November, they were nearly level-pegging (72 mentions for Nick, 60 for Chris). And between 27th November and 3rd December, Nick gained only 32 mentions – the lowest number of either candidate throughout the whole contest – compared to Chris’s 116, his highest since the campaign fully got under way.

Of course, media coverage does not guarantee votes. And it’s quite possible that Nick has spent more time recently ‘behind the scenes’ mapping out exactly how he will hit the ground running if he’s elected leader; while Chris, as underdog, has little option but to nail the accelerator to the floor until every last vote has been posted.

One thing the campaign has helped clarify, I suspect, is who will get which of the top jobs.

Vince Cable’s virtuoso turn as acting leader makes him more or less unmoveable from shadow Chancellor (a consolation prize on which Chris might otherwise have had his eye). It seems highly unlikely that, whoever wins, the loser will be given the foreign affairs brief, given the stand-off during the campaign over party policy on Trident. Which makes it probable that the runner-up will be offered first refusal on staying/becoming the Lib Dems’ home affairs spokesman.

It is just possible that Nick, if he were leader, might ask Chris to stay on at environment; or that Chris, if he were leader, might move Nick to education. As those two issues have been identified by the respective candidates as the ones that are fundamental to their campaigns, it would be hard for either to refuse. But the reality of the shadow cabinet pecking order is that, in either case, it would be seen (and certainly portrayed) as the winner snubbing the loser. Which is why I don’t expect it to happen.