Lib Dem distress perks up rivals

LABOUR and the Conservatives are thoroughly enjoying themselves at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, after the weekend's decapitation of their self confessed alcoholic leader Charles Kennedy.

LABOUR and the Conservatives are thoroughly enjoying themselves at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, after the weekend's decapitation of their self confessed alcoholic leader Charles Kennedy.

The last laugh, however, could lie with the Lib Dems, because who they choose to replace Kennedy could decide the fate of British politics after the General Election.

Although the Conservatives have revived under David Cameron, it still seems a huge task to expect them to gain more than 130 seats they need to form a government in their own right. The Tories would need a net gain in excess of 150 in 2009 or 2010 to have a comfortable working majority.

There is a growing belief that the probable outcome of the next election will be a hung parliament, with neither Labour nor the Tories able to command a majority. So a deal will have to be done with the Liberal Democrats.

Of the contenders for the party's leadership, Simon Hughes and Sir Menzies Campbell are more likely to side with Labour, while Mark Oaten and Chris Huhne - two of the so-called Orange Book economic liberals - could find common cause with Cameron.

But until the 73,000 Lib Dem members have chosen the successor to Kennedy - yesterday Mr Hughes used the rather grand surroundings of the Oxo Tower on London's South Bank to launch his bid - Sir Menzies is in charge as acting leader,

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And what a complete hash he made of his first intervention at Prime Minister's Questions.

Jeers and hoots of joy from Labour and Tory MPs greeted his accusation over the number of schools which do not have a permanent headteacher. Tory Blair rubbed home the embarrassment by commenting: “It can be difficult to find a permanent head of an organisation when the post is vacant - particularly if it is a failing organisation.”

Simon Hughes had similar treatment meted out to him when he asked why patients had to pay thousands for private operations to beat NHS queues, being accused by Mr Blair of opposing New Labour reforms. To growing laughter in the chamber, a smiling Mr Blair looked around for Mr Oaten, asking: “Where's the other one?” - in fact, the Winchester MP was in a television studio commenting on the debate for the BBC.

The end for Mr Kennedy last week was brutal, when after his initial statement that he would resign and stand again - in effect daring MPs to challenge him - support in the parliamentary party haemorrhaged from him and he admitted defeat on Saturday afternoon.

The unhappiness in the party at his performance may have puzzled those who did not know about his drinking or that colleagues were covering up for him. Voters would have looked at the Lib Dems' performance at the election - the highest number of MPs for 80 years - and his principled opposition to the Iraq war, and believed he had done a good job.

But the Lib Dems have never looked like living up to their ludicrous claim to be “the real opposition” and the election success masked the failure of the party's self declared aim of “decapitating” the Tory Party by removing its leading members. Only Tim Collins was defeated, while the others in line for the axe - Theresa May, Oliver Letwin, David Davis and Michael Howard - saw huge increases in their majorities.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in the face of a resurgent Tory Party and Labour voters returning to the fold after protesting last May at their Government's role in the Iraq war, they have to come up pretty quickly with electorally appealing policies. “Tax and spend” proposals on local income tax and a 50p top rate of income tax are no longer viable options.

In order to stand in the postal ballot of the party's 73,000 members, candidates must secure the support of seven MPs as well as backing from a range of local associations. Nominations close on January 25, and the new leader will be named on March 2, a day before the party's spring conference opens in Harrogate.

TONY Blair and George W Bush, having rushed into war with Iraq on the spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, have little room for manoeuvre against the real threat to international peace, Iran.

The first step the EU and United States are likely to take is to call on the United Nations to approve sanctions against Tehran.

Why the concern? Having called for Israel to be removed from the map of the world, Iran has resumed its nuclear centrifuge programme and there is a huge risk that nuclear weapons could rain down on Tel Aviv and Haifa and possibly British interests in Cyprus.

There was little international support for the land invasion of Iraq in 2003 and it would be out of the question in terms of manpower and resources for Downing Street and the White House to send troops in to topple the democratically elected Iranian government.

If there is justification for taking military action against Iran, Bush and Blair have effectively been check mated from considering such a course because of the hostility to what they did in Iraq.

Defying European Union and US warnings of United Nations Security Council sanctions, Iran this week resumed its nuclear fuel enrichment programme. Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dismissed the threat of sanctions, saying “no one can deny the Iranian people's right to have nuclear science”.

Iranian officials broke the seats at a nuclear facility in Natanz in the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who said the Iranians planned to start a small uranium centrifuge as part of their research. Centrifgues, which are spun at supersonic speed, produce a cascade of reactions that enrich uranium to levels at which it can be used for reactors and, if enriched to a far higher level, for nuclear weapons. Experts say Natanz could produce 20 nuclear bombs a year.

Austria, which holds the presidency of the EU, called the action “serious and regrettable” and even Russia, a long time ally of the regimes in Tehran, has expressed concern.

As it is unlikely the Iranians would take any notice of the Security Council, whose five permanent members are all nuclear powers, the international community will have to ask itself whether to let Iran carry on unhindered, or whether the UN should approve bombing missions against the facilities.

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