Well, the first definitive poll on the Liberal Democrat leadership election has been issued. The headline figure showing Nick Clegg leading Chris Huhne by 56 to 44 is a little misleading so I go by the more reliable 43-33 figure. This is nonetheless a strong poll for Nick Clegg and will be disappointing for Chris Huhne who must now hope to win the overwhelming majority of the undecideds in order to close the gap.
I've been following the Lib Dem blogsphere closely since last Tuesday's London Hustings and while Rob Fenwick clearly saw the evening differently to me, the arguments from both sides have been in a much better spirit than was the case a couple of Sundays ago.
The polling data continues to show encouragement for the Party with YouGov on Friday and even ICM's poll today (up on the previous Sunday Telegraph poll but down on the Guardian ICM survey from earlier in the week) suggesting the Party moving back toward the higher teens/twenty per cent. Labour slumps while the Tories hover around 40-42% - a strong poll for them but not "game over" by any means.
In terms of the leadership contest, I have weighed the pros and cons of the two candidates in the past few days. I have reservations about both men - both have many strengths but both have problems in key areas. I would willingly be a member of a Party led by either and the choice has done nothing for me other than to illustrate the incredible gulf between the strength of the Lib Dem Parliamentary party and most of the vacuous wastes-of-space that are David Cameron's team.
Nick Clegg hasn't impressed me at times in the campaign and I remain very concerned about his ability to make an instant impression. In the bearpit that is Prime Minister's Questions, you get one chance to shine - do it well, as Vince Cable did on Wednesday, and the media will love you. Fluff it, as Sir Menzies did, and the knives will be sharpened. There is no time to fish for words and no substitute for calm and confident preparation and presentation. IF Nick Clegg can do well at PMQs, he will be in a strong position as he is unquestionnably a strong tv performer, articulate and engaging.
Chris Huhne is, as I have said, the finished article politically. The "Calamity Clegg" incident was a serious error of judgement which worries me. It may be that we need a "nasty" leader who will shake things up and court controversy but I remain unconvinced as to how Chris will reach out to the disillusioned ex-Labour supporters who are considering voting Tory (without, I believe, any shred of conviction) and offer them a reason to come to us. I fear that with Chris we would be stuck in the 15-25% box.
It is perhaps the sense in which Nick Clegg offers the Party the chance to be something more than we are or we have become comfortable with that may be for me the deciding factor. David Cameron has, to his credit, taken an often unwilling Conservative Party on a journey and has faced dissent and criticism at many points. Nick Clegg too will face internal critics if it is seen that he is considering some policies that some "statist" LD activists may struggle with. Instinctively, liberals believe in smaller Government but that doesn't mean an abdication of responsibility to those less fortunate.
Where I part company with conservatives is the inherent conservative paternalist need to tell people how they should live their lives. Behind every Tory is, in my view, a moraliser and often a hypocrite. This was evident in the Thatcher/Major years and is the case with David Cameron who has a clear view of how people should live and the role of the Conservative Party in communities (the effective takeover of school governing bodies by loyal Tory activists is a classic example). Cameron's Conservatives are as keen on control and micro-management as Major's Conservatives or the Blair/Brown Labour Party.
I think there is a general view now that there is too much Government "involvement" or "interference" in people's lives. I believe that with the Conservatives, that would continue in different forms. That's why I'm a liberal and proud to be one.
Both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne would be proud standard-bearers for the liberal tradition but at the Hustings Q&A, I felt Nick Clegg had more imaginative and compelling ideas and resolutions to problems than Chris who was too often closing down too much in order to please the activists. In the end, while a Party leader has to have the support of the activists, he or she also has to lead and for me Chris Huhne would be the activists' friend.
For these and other reasons, I have decided to vote for Nick Clegg to be the next Liberal Democrat leader.