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Battle begins

Brian Taylor | 15:34 UK time, Thursday, 3 July 2008

I know, I know. "Resigning to spend more time with his family". Usually seen as a euphemism. Happens on this occasion to be true.

Nicol Stephen has four young children - and has wrestled with the challenge of providing a stable family life while operating as leader and serving his Aberdeen constituency.

He tried. The family moved to Edinburgh in order to permit a more stable domestic life.

But he then faced criticism, orchestrated or otherwise, about his main base no longer being in the constituency.

They then returned to living in Aberdeen. Or, more precisely, Mr Stephen's wife Caris and the four kids returned to Aberdeen.

Mr Stephen split his time between Aberdeen, parliament and leadership duties.

Here at Holyrood, there has been almost nothing but sympathy for Nicol Stephen's decision.

Most have sensibly confined themselves to wishing him all the best in his efforts to ease domestic stresses and strains. One or two have, unwisely, added riders about the supposed irrelevance of the LibDems.

From me, best wishes to the Stephen family - and all families seeking a happier, better life for themselves.

So who takes over? Tavish Scott is favourite although he has yet to declare and is stressing his determination to consult first.

However, he stood aside when Mr Stephen replaced Jim Wallace - and I have no doubt that he will stand this time. He brings experience, drive, charm and a hard-headed approach to politics.

Ross Finnie - a former cabinet colleague of both Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott - is giving it serious thought. Well liked and well respected, he'll get a decent vote if he chooses to stand.

Mike Rumbles was first into the frame - and will stand on a ticket of, among other things, reopening a debate within the party as to whether to endorse an independence referendum or not.

That stance will win support in some quarters of the LibDems. Glance at the title of the party. Liberal and democratic.

They are institutionally inclined towards both discussion and plebiscites.

Mr Rumbles stresses he supported the policy as advanced by Nicol Stephen. However, he would welcome an opportunity for the wider party to debate the issue.

Tavish Scott took the toughest line against supporting a referendum during the brief talks with the SNP about a putative coalition.

He argues that, if the SNP win a majority, then they should have their referendum and hope for fine weather. But other parties who support the Union should not assist them in their task.

That will be an intriguing element of the debate within the Liberal Democrats - just as within the leaderless Labour Party.

Alex Salmond must daily wonder if he is dreaming.

A final thought. This resignation is, in two ways, a result of electoral defeat or, more precisely, the loss of office.

Ministerial rank is more appealing than opposition. And, as a minister, you have a team of supporters and a government car to lessen the trials.

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