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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 16:01 GMT
Jackie Ballard: Home Affairs

By BBC News Online's Ray Dunne

As one of just a handful of women MPs in the Liberal Democrats Jackie Ballard has been tipped for good things.

She was one of the famous faces of election night in 1997, personifying the Lib Dems' success in winning their largest number of seats in more than a generation.

Like many of the party's successful MPs, Mrs Ballard owed much to tactical voting.

She contested the Somerset constituency of Taunton in the 1992 general election and was widely tipped to win the seat.

However, a last minute surge to the Conservatives deprived her of victory and she was forced to wait five years before winning the backing of the local electorate.

Leadership challenge

A one-time close associate of former party leader Paddy Ashdown, Mrs Ballard is an outspoken and confident MP.

At the election of the new Liberal Democrat leader
At the election of the new Liberal Democrat leader
When Mr Ashdown stood down as leader in 1999, Mrs Ballard was among the first to put her name forward to replace him despite having been an MP for just two years. She launched her campaign for the leadership before Mr Ashdown had submitted his resignation to the party president.

The campaign got off to a flying start - literally - when Mrs Ballard embarked on an 800-mile round-trip around the UK on the first day.

The dark horse

As the only woman candidate in the race Mrs Ballard, whose campaign slogan was "Jackie B - who cares wins", was constantly referred to as the "dark horse".

She told the party that she would oppose closer links with the Labour Party and make proportional representation at Westminster a priority if elected.

However, Liberal Democrat party members failed to agree and Mrs Ballard came fourth in the battle to replace Mr Ashdown. The party instead chose Charles Kennedy who decided to omit Mrs Ballard and a number of his other challengers from the Lib Dem front bench after his election.

Nevertheless, the Taunton MP is well liked in the party and has a high profile among the grassroots.

A former social worker, she is a former deputy leader of Somerset county council and leader of South Somerset district council.

Strong views

She has strong views on poverty, the environment and is against fox hunting and is now the party's deputy home affairs spokeswoman.

Mrs Ballard is also in favour of more women MPs within the Lib Dems and has campaigned in the past for an increase in female candidates.

Divorced in 1989, she says she enjoys swimming and listening to Celtic rock music.

Her Taunton seat, which was won from the Tories last time around, will be one of those watched closely by the Liberal Democrat leadership.

As an MP in a marginal seat, Mrs Ballard's success or otherwise may be an early signal on election night of how the Lib Dems will perform nationally.

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