And the winners are . . . ?

Some leadership contests excite. Some disappoint. Others exist only in name. The Conservatives have had the good fortune that, after three lamentable efforts, they have chanced upon someone to inspire them. Labour supporters are fortunate that the succession to Tony Blair is all but secured, but unfortunate that a coronation will do little to test the credentials of Gordon Brown. The battle for the Liberal Democrat crown has been an unhappier affair. The circumstances were not propitious - a leader jettisoned because of a drink habit, a fear that the party had peaked at the last election, a Tory revival undermining confidence further and a series of mini-scandals.

Despite this, the candidates have done their best to sound positive. They have traipsed the country, addressing public meetings. They have set out manifestos whose details few of a liberal/progressive disposition could object to. There may be variations, but the themes are consistent: environmental taxes, decentralisation, constitutional reform, withdrawal of troops from Iraq and, most notable, an emphasis on civil liberties. So similar have the campaign messages been that Tim Garden, the Lib Dems' defence spokesman in the Lords, said it was hard to choose between them, and suggested that his party's MPs had blundered by forcing Charles Kennedy to quit. That might be so, but the deed is done.

The paradox is that the Lib Dems are feeling glum just when they are needed most. The political blancmange created by Tony Blair and David Cameron is stifling debate and reinforcing disillusionment. A cartel is being established by the two big parties around the main components of criminal justice, public service reform and foreign policy. There is ample scope for a third party to define an appeal that is distinctive and successful. Talk of a contradiction between "left of Labour" and "centre ground" is a lazy construct of the Westminster village. In local government, where they control some of the biggest cities in the country, the Lib Dems appear able to straddle the ideological divide.

Their stunning victory in the recent Dunfermline and West Fife by-election suggests that voters are driven as much by instinct as ideological definition. We should not forget that, in May 2005 - with their most successful result in a century - the Lib Dems epitomised for many the only principled choice. A survey of New Statesman readers suggested that more were intending to vote for Kennedy than for Blair.

It matters to many on the left, therefore, what direction the Liberal Democrats intend to take and whom they choose to lead them. Chris Huhne, the darling of his friends in the media, has portrayed himself as both safe and radical. He is the one with the most to prove to voters in coming years (which is no bad thing). Menzies Campbell, the patrician, would be first choice for foreign secretary in any fantasy cabinet game . His principled critique of the Iraq war has ensured his place in modern political history. His grasp of domestic policy, however, has been less assured. As the most recognisably radical contestant, Simon Hughes should have had the rank and file of the party in his pocket by now. But if the man who missed out in 1999 does so again, he can put it down to a manner that sometimes can seem divisive.

Thus are the Lib Dems locked in a battle between one who is considered old and the other anonymous. Whoever wins, the party is likely to be led by a collective: an impressive array of young guns such as Nick Clegg, David Laws and Ed Davey. They are preparing to pull the strings, but are they pulling in the right direction? The advocates of their Orange Book pamphlet of September 2004 consider it the bible of modern liberal democracy. It does provide some intellectual clarity, and seek to reclaim economic liberalism. But many of these clothes have since been stolen by Cameron and, in any case, party activists and some senior figures (such as Campbell) remain unmoved. This is surely why many of these ideas have been banished in the campaign.

Whoever wins the contest, the Lib Dems should not be panicked into ditching their efforts to become the conscience of the nation, the advocates of civil rights; they should not tack with the wind; they should not join the stampede to the soggy centre. They should beware the oranges under the bed.

We weren't robbed

The Brits are back at it, whingeing at the inequities of the world. How dare those judges at the Bafta awards shower the Yanks with prizes? Why oh why, complained the director of Pride and Prejudice, was the pouting Keira not even nominated? As for Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes, the newspapers proclaimed before the event that the prizes for The Constant Gardener were in the bag. Instead the plaudits went to Brokeback Mountain, and good thing too.

Strange to say, but for all the pieties about British cinema, it is in Hollywood where the political edge is now strongest. The story of gay cowboys sends a more telling political message than the gushy morality tale about multinationals in Africa. The Brits need to shed the chocolate-box schmaltz they have convinced themselves is the key to critical and commercial success, and get back to making good films. Creative protectionism will not help their cause.

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