Mark Oaten, one of a handful of liberals still left in the Liberal Democrat Party, has abandoned his campaign to be its leader. Quite simply, Oaten needed seven members of Parliament to sign his nomination paper. Despite the fact that several MPs declared they would nominate anyone, just to ensure a contest, it seems that Oaten could not reach the magic number. Jo Grimmond and William Gladstone would be devastated by the news.
Now what? Ming Campbell has secured his slot as the front runner. Some younger members believe that if he is elected it will give a real liberal the chance to run in four years time. Oaten, if he can enhance his reputation between now and then, could still be the man, though he has disappointed thus far. David Laws and Nick Clegg seem more credible candidates, though much can happen over the next few years. But there is no guarantee that a liberal could win even then. The left of the party has almost none of the talent, but a good proportion of the membership. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. The Liberal Party - a predecessor of the LibDems - has been directly electing its leaders since the 1970s, and began by electing the leftist, David Steel, over the liberal, John Pardoe.
It is likely that with a revitalised liberal wing to the Conservative Party the continued weakness of the liberal wing of the LibDems will prompt some defections. It is not clear that the defections to the new organisation LibDems for Cameron will include any MPs or MEPs. That said, it must be tempting. There is a real chance that the first prominent defector will be a member of the cabinet in four years time.
The chance of high profile defections will increase a great deal if the LibDems take the route of electing the far left candidate, Simon Hughes, who came second in the last leadership election and is currently the Party President. If that happens, watch carefully Mark Oaten, Nick Clegg, David Laws, Susan Kramer, Lembit Opik, and Nick Harvey. All could hold their seats as Conservatives but might find them under extreme pressure if they remain as Liberal Democrats.
Of course, a great many other LibDems, including another leadership contender, Chris Huhne, might also find it difficult to be re-elected if the Conservative tide is rising. A first wave of defections from a Hughes-led Liberal Democrat Party might not be the last.