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