The candidates for leading the Liberal Democrats seem to have emerged from a phase of being too friendly to one another and started hostilities in earnest. It was revealed today on BBC's Politics Show that Huhne's team had produced a catalogue of Clegg's weaknesses entitled Calamity Clegg. No surprise there, if the candidates did not have some SWOT analysis data it would be more surprising. They are equally trying to brand the other as uncertain, a flip-flop in modern political parlance, and it seems after today's performance it would be difficult for them to work closely together in the near future.
It is here where the problem lies! The party has 62 elected members, while talent is not restricted to a few within that number the party cannot withstand factionalism. If the contest stays nasty, the supporters behind each candidate will observe strict battle lines and these could remain long after the leadership is decided. Divisions, splits and public attacks are damaging to the image of a party and public perceptions can be driven by media emphasis on such issues. Equally attack on the character and ability of a candidate make it very hard for rehabilitation. If Huhne wins and the image of flip-flop, or calamnity stick to Clegg, how can Huhne, if he should wish, then give him a front bench role? A problem!
For a third party, who are often seen as being unable to win, it can be difficult to gain credibility at the best of times. The challenge for the leadership candidates is that they win the contest without losing the bigger war; the war for political influence.