Profile: Lib Dems' danger man - Mark Littlewood, head of press, Liberal Democrats

Mark Littlewood sneaks in a cigarette after his photo-shoot to help him 'warm up' for our interview - he later reveals he suffered a 'serious health scare' last April in which he nearly died from an asthma attack.

Littlewood, 32, packs plenty of edginess and zeal into his rakelike frame.

His move to lead the press office of the Liberal Democrats, a party opposed to ID cards, is not surprising given that he is the founder of pressure group NO2ID.

A politics enthusiast to the extent of 'nerdishness' (his word), Littlewood sees his new role as an opportunity to at last get a 'taste of victory'.

He adds: 'I've become a little jaded about running highly spirited campaigns that end in noble defeat.'

With the Government mired in ongoing controversies and the Conservatives struggling to rebuild support, the Lib Dems seem well placed to make gains in next year's expected general election. But the traditional party of protest faces competition from the growing number of smaller parties such as UKIP, and George Galloway's anti-war Respect. 'We can no longer rely on mopping up all of the none-of-the-above votes,' says Littlewood.

'There are other options on the ballot paper.'

Persuading the media that the Lib Dems are a serious force, he says, is crucial. 'We are going to be put under a lot more scrutiny in this election,' he says. 'We've got to ramp up our efforts to use broadcast media more successfully. The next election campaign is going to be fought, like the last one, in large part on the airwaves.

'We are going to need robust defences of our policies because we will be attacked more by the other parties and by the press than in the past.

They are going to go through everything we say with a fine tooth-comb.'

And Littlewood is anxious to avoid presenting the party as a 'one-man band'. Leader Charles Kennedy has his own press secretary in Jackie Rowley.

Littlewood is an experienced campaigner. He studied politics, philosophy and economics at Balliol College, Oxford, where he founded the pro-Europe and pro-constitutional change Oxford Reform Club. After graduating in 1993, he began a two-year law conversion course in London, but political yearnings prompted him to drop out and join the European Movement as youth officer, where he rose through the ranks.

He was then approached by Tory MEPs John Stevens and Brendan Donnelly to run the campaign for the Pro-European Conservative Party, a breakaway Tory faction, in the 1999 European elections. But when it won only 1.5 per cent of the vote, it became clear that a pro-Europe centre-right party was 'not a sustainable enterprise'.

Littlewood joined pressure group Liberty in 2001, co-ordinating its media relations, research, policy and lobbying.

Those who know Littlewood regard his arrival at the Lib Dems with positive intrigue. Marc Glendening, campaign director at Eurosceptic group the Democracy Movement, worked under Littlewood as a volunteer for NO2ID.

'Major parties are not known for appointing people who are a little dangerous or who have flair,' he says.

'With him around, (the Lib Dems) may play up more civil libertarian policies since the other two parties are engaged in a Dutch auction over who can be more authoritarian,' he adds.

Stevens, now a member of the Liberal Democrat European Group, says: 'Mark is a very talented operator. His appointment is a step up in gear for the Lib Dems in the way they approach the press. They have not traditionally favoured a muscular approach and he is a tough opponent.'

Littlewood's other passion is Southampton Football Club - he admits he becomes 'shirty' and refuses to buy newspapers if they lose. Will Littlewood buy newspapers the day after the election? 'After polling day, I'll be wanting a long holiday somewhere warm,' he says - 'whatever the result'.

RESUME

1998: Head of regional campaigning, European Movement

1999: Campaigns director, Pro-European Conservative Party

2000: Freelance press officer, Environment Agency

2001: Freelance media consultant, Transport for London

2001: Campaigns director, Liberty

2004: Founder and national co-ordinator, NO2ID

2004: Head of press, Liberal Democrats

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