Gordon's New Friends: The Removal of Menzies Campbell Has Done the Prime Minister Several Favours-Not That He Would Be Able to Acknowledge That in Public. Martin Bright Reports

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There are two British politicians who would have been extremely useful to Gordon Brown, standing shoulder to shoulder with him as he prepares for battle over the EU reform treaty. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, both have been spending the past few days preparing to run for leader of a rival political party. Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, the front-runners in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest, have precisely the experience of Europe that the Labour front bench lacks. It is a sign of these peculiarly centrist times that it is quite possible to imagine both men as members of a Brown government. But their outgoing leader, Menzies Campbell, lost his nerve and ruled out cabinet posts for the Lib Dems, so we will never know what they might have contributed.


Perhaps Brown even had the impending negotiations in mind when he made his historic offer to Campbell. The PM's team of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Jim Murphy, minister for Europe, is solid enough. But their knowledge of the intricacies of the EU does not compare to that of Huhne and Clegg, who were both MEPs before they entered the Commons at the last election. Huhne served on the economic and monetary affairs committee of the European Parliament and acted as economic spokesman for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Clegg served as the group's trade spokesman and set up the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform, which worked for greater transparency of European institutions. Both are cosmopolitan, multilingual and open to ideas from our European neighbours--everything new Labour under Brown is not.

Huhne and Clegg may not be household names yet. The high street recognition tests carried out by newspapers on these occasions suggest that very few people outside the Westminster village can even put a name to their photos. But among their parliamentary peers, they mark a shift in the seriousness with which the Lib Dems are perceived. With the possibility of a hung parliament always at the back of their minds, the younger generation of Labour and Conservative MPs have long assumed that these are people they will have to do business with, and soon.

Within the third party, there is now considerable pressure on other candidates not to stand. There are rumblings that Charles Kennedy wishes to throw his hat into the ring, but I understand he will be strongly dissuaded from doing so by party grandees. Vincent Cable, now acting as caretaker leader, has said "no". On the so-called left of the party, Steve Webb has hinted strongly in an article on www.newstatesman.com that he would be keen to stand. But most senior figures want a straight beauty contest between Huhne and Clegg.

In the end, it was Brown who did for his old friend Ming. …