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by RAY FLEMING
THE 50'000 Liberal Democrat members who voted for Menzies (“Ming”) Campbell, and gave him an 8'000 majority as their new leader, made a good choice. “Safe pair of hands” may not be the most stirring electoral call imaginable but in the unusual circumstances of this leadership campaign it made sense. Yesterday the man himself put it in the right perspective when he said: “Caution and consolidation will not do. Safe pair of hands? Yes, but we have to be ready to take risks.” The Liberal Democrat's campaign was in a lower key than the Conservative's leadership contest of last year but it had the same qualities of reasoned debate and respect between the contenders. The new leader will have many things to reflect on before he addresses his party's Spring Conference this weekend. The immediate priority is to see that the party's policies and organisation are in good shape for the May national local elections, in which its strengths are usually deployed to greatest effect. As Labour and the Conservatives vie with each other to prove their commitment to devolving, and even double-devolving, to the local level, the LibDems are able to point to their 4'750 local councillors and the number of local authorities that they already control. The recent Dunfermline by-election, won with a swing from Labour of 16 per cent, showed how potent the Liberal Democrats can be in the right circumstances. The longer term issue is whether this third party can reasonably hold expectations of being in government in the future. Perhaps emboldened by the euphoria of victory yesterday, Sir Menzies spoke of modernising the party and “leading it back to government”. The last all-Liberal government was during the First World War, although the party participated in unsatisfactory coaltions during the 1920s and 30s, so “back to government” has a quaint sound to it. Nonetheless, earlier in the day, the party's former leader Lord Paddy Ashdown said on the BBC's Today programme that the Liberal Democrats “could be the party of government in my lifetime”. Hope springs eternal!