Many Conservatives were saying to me over the past few months that with a different leader they could see the Liberal Democrats returning to contention in British politics. Indeed many of said that they could easily support the Lib Dems, "if only you had a X as leader instead".
Several have mentioned Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne as being potentially a far greater threat to Cameron than Ming Campbell. Of course they did not think that Ming would leave the leadership so soon- any more than I did.
The media has led a pretty unpleasant campaign to denigrate Ming Campbell as "too old" or "too weak". At Brighton, although the party was quite happy with Ming as its leader, the fact is that in every single one of 74 interviews Ming was asked about his age by the press and broadcast media. In the end, in the face of this extraordinarily heavy fire, the poll ratings of the Liberal Democrats began to be hurt. In the end, as a true and loyal Liberal Democrat, Ming decided to stand down, when it became obvious that the problem of the media was not going to go away.
Now the media is suggesting that this was some kind of brutal party assassination. It was not, it was simply a reflection that the attacks that the media were themselves making on the leader were not going to stop, no matter what, and Ming was unwilling to face what is likely to be another 2 years of this. Having overcome a serious cancer, Ming Campbell did not need these personal and hurtful attacks to continue. So the vile gloating from some quarters-in the press and in other parties-that the Lib Dems are the new "nasty" party is very wide of the mark indeed it is pretty hypocritical.
Now it seems likely that the race for the new leader will be between Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. Although Nick clearly has the advantage, the fact is that either would be good leaders and would terrify the other parties. Chris is a brilliantly successful businessman and economist, with strong ties to finance. Nick has a track record as a high flying civil servant. Both are cosmopolitan multi-lingual and highly intelligent.
The enemies of the party have now switched tack. Clegg, they say is just "Cameron lite", while Chris Huhne is "the assassin of Ming Campbell".
Nice try guys!
The reality is that with Clegg, you get a real principled Liberal (as opposed to an unprincipled "Liberal Conservative") who happens to be a good communicator as well. With Huhne you get a highly intelligent and forensic debater who understands economics and finance in a way that no one on the other parties' front benches can even aspire to.
Even amongst the Lib Dem front bench which bristles with well rounded, well educated figures, from Dr. Vince Cable, David Laws, and Edward Davey to Professor Webb, and Dr. Evan Harris, these two are exceptional.
Those that looked on the Lib Dems with a certain amount of schadenfreude will now face a serious challenge- whoever take the reins at Cowley Street is going to be a good communicator, with a track record of success and a substantial personal hinterland.
Our opponents may now be crying crocodile tears over the demise of Ming- they will be weeping real tears when the re-energised Liberal Democrats start to bring the battle for freedom firmly back onto the political agenda, and the authoritarian statists of blue and red are forced to explain themselves.