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Friday, January 22, 1999 Published at 07:59 GMT

UK Politics

Ashdown: I'm boss until June

Paddy Ashdown: Now the battle for succession begins

Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has warned any potential successors not to start campaigning for his job too soon.

Mr Ashdown shocked party members on Wednesday by announcing he would step down as Lib Dem leader after the European elections in June.

The BBC's Robin Oakley: "It is expected to be a six week campaign"
No Lib Dem MPs have so far officially thrown their hat into the ring to become Mr Ashdown's successor - although deputy leader Alan Beith has already ruled himself out.

Bookmakers William Hill have already made Charles Kennedy the 4-6 favourite, with Menzies Campbell and Nick Harvey at 4-1 and Simon Hughes on 9-2.

As well as sparking a leadership contest Mr Ashdown's announcement throws into doubt the continued informal alliance between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

[ image: Prime Minister Tony Blair insists the Lib-Lab ties will survive Paddy Ashdown's resignation]
Prime Minister Tony Blair insists the Lib-Lab ties will survive Paddy Ashdown's resignation
But Prime Minister Tony Blair insists that it will continue and Mr Ashdown has already warned those keen to take up his mantle that candidates who oppose links with Labour will not win.

So far the Liberal Democrat leader, who has spent the day in his Yeovil constituency, is refusing to say who he wants to succeed him.

After 11 years as leader Mr Ashdown says he wants more time with his family and to explore new challenges.

The BBC's Carolyn Quinn: "Potential candidates are already stacking up"
"Every one of those who would like to succeed me knows very well indeed that the one thing that would most damage their leadership possibilities in future is to begin to run before there's even a vacancy,"

"I'm running this party up until June," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He added: "I am confident that the policy we have followed is no longer Paddy Ashdown's policy, it's the Liberal Democrats' policy. It's been democratically endorsed by them. It is now firm, it is clear."

Potential candidates will have to pull together in the coming months, before Mr Ashdown stands down, to achieve the best possible results in the upcoming series of local, Scots, Welsh and European elections.

Battle for succession

Meanwhile leadership candidates - a number of whom have made no secret of their unhappiness at the Ashdown-inspired closeness with Labour - have, gently but unmistakably, begun to jostle for his job.

[ image: Potential leadership contender Nick Harvey backs the close co-operation with Labour]
Potential leadership contender Nick Harvey backs the close co-operation with Labour
Mr Harvey - seen as Mr Ashdown's own chosen heir - put in an early marker, backing the pact with Labour.

He insisted co-operation with the government would continue after Mr Ashdown's departure.

"I don't think it can continue in exactly the same way - the personal chemistry is obviously a considerable part of it - but there's no reason at all why the dialogue won't continue because there's a compelling logic to it," he told the same programme.

[ image: Charles Kennedy is one of the chief potential contenders]
Charles Kennedy is one of the chief potential contenders
Other chief contenders are Lib Dem health spokesman Simon Hughes, agriculture spokesman and former party president Charles Kennedy, foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell and Treasury spokesman Malcolm Bruce.

Although MPs may continue to jostle on the starting blocks The party's environment spokesman Matthew Taylor told BBC News Online: "Paddy Ashdown has given us six months to work through this process and that means that we can all take some time to think who would be the best leader.

Paddy Ashdown interviewed on Today: "The co-operation is not just my policy, it is the Liberal Democrats' policy"
"Whether I or anyone else would like to do it is too early to say. I think we'll have to wait until the end of May before we can start calculating the odds."

Each leadership candidate must be nominated by two other Liberal Democrat MPs and supported by 200 ordinary party members.

Then a one-member-one-vote ballot among all 90,000 party members will decide the new leader.

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