by RAY FLEMING
SHORT of learning that Menzies Campbell took performance drugs during his running days it is difficult to know what more can go wrong for the Liberal Democrats' leadership campaign. Simon Hughes' inept handling of revelations of his liberal sexual preferences have followed Mark Oaten's outing under pressure from media exposure and Charles Kennedy's similar admission of an alcohol problem only when the news was about to break. One might have thought that Mr Hughes would have recognised that the kind of denials he had been giving even after Mr Oaten's departure could not be sustained. Instead of taking the initiative and insisting that his private behaviour had no bearing on the leadership of his party, he prevaricated and suffered the worst of both worlds. In retrospect it is possible to see the wisdom of David Cameron's refusal during the Conservative leadership hustings to answer questions about his use of drugs while at university on the grounds that it was a private matter in the past. Can the Liberal Democrats recover the ground that the polls show they have already lost in public support? This depends principally on who is chosen as leader. Menzies Campbell is a safe pair of hands and his caretaker leadership could give some of the able younger MPs in the party time to emerge and stake a claim for a later bid. If Mr Hughes were chosen the door to the leadership would be closed for some time, at least in respect of age. There is plenty of talent in the party and in several areas it continues to take a distinctive policy role. Although the conventional wisdom is that the new Conservatives will take over the LibDems' territory and their voters it can also be argued that the more Mr Cameron and Mr Blair blur into a single image the greater will be the need for the independent voice that the Liberal Democrats have always provided. It will take time, though, to recover from the present difficulties. The local elections in March, in which it normally does well, will be a testing time for the party this year.