Thursday, January 21, 1999 Published at 21:20 GMT
Kennedy favourite for Ashdown's job
Mr Kennedy is favourite to take over from Mr Ashdown
Bookmakers William Hill believe Charles Kennedy has the star appeal necessary to become the next leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.
The party is determined there will be no leadership campaigning until after the European elections but William Hill have already made Mr Kennedy, the party's agriculture spokesman, the 6-4 on favourite.
Simon Hughes, the party's health spokesman, is a 9-2 shot with William Hill, and outsiders include Malcolm Bruce and Matthew Taylor (both 20-1), David Rendall (25-1) and deputy leader Alan Beith (33-1) .
Links with Labour set to cool
Mr Kennedy, a 39-year-old bachelor, won his seat - now known as Ross, Skye and Inverness West - in 1983.
A former journalist and broadcaster he has been party spokesman on social security, Scotland, trade and industry, health and European Union affairs.
Mr Kennedy has retained a high profile despite his relegation to agriculture spokesman and has been a regular guest on TV shows as varied as Question Time and Have I Got News For You.
A barrister by profession, he may have jeopardised his chances following last November's public falling out with Mr Ashdown over the leader's co-operation with Labour.
Popular constituency MP
Mr Hughes won the previously safe Labour seat of Bermondsey in south London in 1983 - when his opponent was the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell - and has held off strong attempts by Labour to win it back.
One key factor in the leadership contest will be whether the close ties Mr Ashdown has built with Tony Blair and Labour will continue.
Both Mr Kennedy and Mr Hughes are known to have little love for Labour and they may feel the Liberal Democrats' increasingly close ties with the government are counter-productive.
The 37-year-old is a former student union leader who spent time working in public relations and marketing before winning his Devon North seat in 1992.
Mr Beith, 55 - who was beaten by Mr Ashdown in the last leadership election - is thought unlikely to stand.
Another young pretender is Matthew Taylor, 36, the party's spokesman on transport and the environment.
A former student union leader at Oxford, he worked as a researcher for Truro MP David Penhaligon who died in a car accident. Mr Taylor went on to win the 1987 by-election caused by the death.
Each candidate must be nominated by two other Liberal Democrat MPs and be supported by 200 ordinary party members.
There will be a one-member one-vote ballot among all 90,000 party members across the UK.
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