Friday, June 11, 1999 Published at 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
Leadership race goes public
Ashdown ends an era
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder
The race to succeed Paddy Ashdown as Liberal Democrat leader has finally burst into the open with contenders ending their undeclared war and starting to campaign in earnest.
The party's health spokesman Simon Hughes was the first MP to throw his hat into the ring.
They were banned by Mr Ashdown from campaigning publicly until after the elections to the European Parliament, in which the Liberal Democrats hope to make significant gains.
And publicly, all the contenders have behaved impeccably.
Senior Liberal Democrat MP Menzies Campbell added to the activity earlier this month when he announced he would not be standing for the leadership.
His decision gave an immediate boost to the bookies favourite, the party's agriculture spokesman Charles Kennedy, who Mr Campbell is expected to back.
The front-runners are likely to be Mr Hughes, education spokesman Don Foster and local council spokeswoman Jackie Ballard.
The main political issue will almost certainly revolve around the controversial alliance between the party and the government which has formed the centrepiece of Mr Ashdown's strategy since the 1997 general election.
But grassroots members have never been happy with it and virtually all the likely successors to Mr Ashdown would either water it down or abandon it completely.
Mr Foster is the only candidate who fully supports the pact and will use that as his main election pitch.
But all the smart money in Westminster is on Mr Kennedy. He is young, experienced and well liked.
Whoever takes over will be taking charge of the party at its most successful period for decades.
Paddy Ashdown has charted a controversial course, but has seen massive gains for the Liberal Democrats.
The adoption of proportional representation in the devolved assemblies and in Europe is a major gain and has handed the party the balance of power in the assemblies.
The party has also become a serious force in local councils, and now controls both Liverpool and Sheffield.
The biggest challenge facing the new leader will be to keep the pressure on Tony Blair to deliver his pledge to hold a referendum on introducing PR for Westminster elections.
Many Labour MPs and activists are implacably opposed to a change and there are growing signs that Mr Blair is cooling on the idea.
If Mr Ashdown's successor can persuade Labour, and then the country, to back a move to PR then the Liberal Democrats could realise their dream of becoming a powerful third force in British politics.
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