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Friday, June 11, 1999 Published at 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK

UK Politics

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.

Lib Dem Leadership
He is the first of up to half a dozen would-be leaders who are expected to announce they will stand over the next few days.

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.

Carolyn Quinn reports: "The plotting to succeed Paddy Ashdown is under way"
But from the very day Mr Ashdown announced his decision to stand down after more than a decade, there has been a frantic behind-the-scenes campaign which has seen likely candidates attempting to gauge their support and canvass votes.

Senior Liberal Democrat MP Menzies Campbell added to the activity earlier this month when he announced he would not be standing for the leadership.

Bookies' favourite

His decision gave an immediate boost to the bookies favourite, the party's agriculture spokesman Charles Kennedy, who Mr Campbell is expected to back.

[ image: Kennedy: front runner]
Kennedy: front runner
And the race is almost certainly to turn into a "who can beat Kennedy" contest.

The front-runners are likely to be Mr Hughes, education spokesman Don Foster and local council spokeswoman Jackie Ballard.

Simon Hughes: "I wanted to make my position clear"
Other contenders likely to declare over the next few days could include Treasury spokesman Malcolm Bruce, social security spokesman David Rendel and chief whip Paul Tyler.

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.

Paddy Ashdown speaking on the BBC's Today programme
The unofficial pact has seen major political gains for the Lib Dems. They now have seats on a cabinet committee and have seen cherished polices such as moves towards PR becoming reality.

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.

Election pitch

Mr Foster is the only candidate who fully supports the pact and will use that as his main election pitch.

[ image: Ballard: strong contender]
Ballard: strong contender
Ms Ballard is certain to attract support and would dearly love to become the first woman leader of the party.

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.

Serious force

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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