l AT a recent dinner party I was asked by an earnest Swiss acquaintance what purpose the Liberal Democrats served in British politics. If the question had been posed a couple of months earlier I would not have had much difficulty in answering it by reference to the party's long and distinguished history, its integrity, and the value of a “third party” which can take an independent line and challenge politcal orthodoxy without worrying too much about having to justify its words when it achieves office. I would also have said that Charles Kennedy had proved himself to be the most principled of Britain's political leaders over Iraq. Unfortunately, I could not draw on any of these arguments, given the dreadful sequence of personal failings and party disarray that began with Charles Kennedy, continued with Mark Oaten and ended (hopefully) with Simon Hughes. Yesterday the ballot papers for the Liberal Democrats' leadership campaign went out to the party faithful who now have three weeks in which to make up their minds, if they have not already done so. In a curious way this election of a new leader may now be more important than it was in the immediate aftermath of Mr Kennedy's resignation. Whoever wins will have to pick the party off the floor after at least two and possibly three embarrassing revelations and renew its sense of self-belief and purpose. Although I was probably not able to convince my Swiss dinner companion that the Liberal Democrats have an important role in British politics, I do continue to believe that a medium-sized and active third party plays an invaluable role. Given the task facing the new party leader the need seems to be for a mature and experienced politican whose integrity is beyond doubt. That points to Sir Menzies Campbell, notwithstanding his age and relative lack of experience on UK policies. There is plenty of time for younger candidates to come through for the future. The immediate need is to steady the ship.