westminster diary Profile

It's hard to enhance your political reputation if you are Liberal Democrat health spokesman, even if you are already well-known like Simon Hughes. Nick Harvey's accession to the post suggests that a period of career consolidation beckons, rather than dizzy stardom.

He may not have a high public profile, but Mr Harvey's supporters could be forgiven for feeling disappointed that he has ended up with the health brief. A year ago the tall, balding MP for Devon North was viewed by many as a contender to succeed Paddy Ashdown as leader.

Although the cuttings files reveal that he has shown little interest in health during his seven years as an MP, his renown as a hard-working and shrewd political tactician with well-honed media-handling skills suggest that if he has the appetite, the brief will present him with few problems.

Whether he is hungry enough is another matter. According to one Liberal Democrat insider, the health job represents a banishment to the chilly margins for a man who until recently was at the very heart of the party machine as its head of campaigns and communication.

'The party is taking a bit of a chance by appointing Nick to health, ' says the source. 'But the alternative was Jackie Ballard (MP for Taunton, who ran a disastrous leadership bid this year). Nick was the lesser of two evils.'

A further difficulty for Mr Harvey is that he is known not to be close to party leader Charles Kennedy. He is on the right of the party, and associated with Paddy Ashdown and Lords health spokesman Lord Clement-Jones, whom he backed against Mr Kennedy in the party's presidential elections in 1990.

The pro-Europe Kennedy clan are not enamoured of Mr Harvey's history as a Eurosceptic - he was the only Lib Dem MP not to vote for the government over the Maastricht treaty in 9992 - and are unconvinced by his Damascene conversion to the euro in February this year.

Aged 38, Mr Harvey is a veteran of Liberal politics, having first stood as a candidate in his school's mock election in 1979. He was union president at Middlesex Polytechnic, working his way through a series of internal party posts before inheriting ex-Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe's old seat in 1992.

By some accounts, Mr Harvey is a genial, suave, witty backroom fixer. But Matthew Parris of The Times described him as 'the encyclopaedia salesman with the eyes of the undead, suspected of strangling old ladies'.