But Mr Ashdown also gave a clear signal that he wants the next leader to carry on his strategy for closer links with Tony Blair's Government. That could rule out Simon Hughes, who has strongly opposed the extension of the links, and he is known to have his doubts about Charles Kennedy. who wanted the Liberal Democrats to replace the Tories as the party of Opposition.
The party leader called on his MPs to focus on the campaign for the European elections, but they were clearly setting their sights on the leadership election.
Mr Ashdown said he had made sure that the party had a range of candidates from which to choose, by giving them front- bench responsibility to show their skills.
The front runners include his closest aide, Menzies Campbell, the defence and foreign affairs spokesman, who would be seen as the continuity candidate. Others include the former BBC reporter Mr Kennedy, Don Foster, the Education spokesman, and Nick Harvey, the party campaign chief.
In his message to the party, Mr Ashdown said: "The leadership election will also - as has always been my wish - provide an opportunity for the party to confirm democratically, the strategy I have set for the future. I will endorse no candidate," said Mr Ashdown.
"Of course it has been my strategy to make sure that the party has a proper range of choices. I have put people in front-row jobs so they can show their skills."
Some Liberal Democrat sources at Westminster said Mr Harvey was too young, with no real campaign base in the party from which to launch a successful leadership bid. Allies of Mr Harvey said he would continue Mr Ashdown's broad strategy, rather than "take our bat and ball away" but would be "in there negotiating hard".
Although the official contest cannot start until Mr Ashdown actually stands down in June, the behind-the-scenes jostling for position will now begin. Mr Ashdown's departure has long been on the cards, and the big question of who will be his successor has long been a favourite dinner- table debating topic among Liberal Democrats at Westminster.
He told Mr Blair after the election that he would go when he was sure that the "modernisation project" with Labour was secure. That point came last week when it was agreed to extend co-operation.
The party hierarchy was at pains to stress that there must be no campaigning until after Mr Ashdown has stood down. But then, nominations open in a contest that will be decided in a matter of weeks.
Each candidate must be nominated by two other Liberal Democrat MPs and be supported by 200 ordinary party members. Once the names of all candidates are in, there will be a one-member-one-vote ballot among all 90,000 party members across Britain.
At Westminster, MPs who see themselves as successors have been trying to raise their profiles. Mr Hughes could win votes from those who have their doubts about the relationship with the Government. He has emerged as the most outspoken critic of links with Labour, at one point threatening to resign his frontbench health post if the cabinet committee was extended to cover his portfolio. He will also appeal to the party's "green" lobby.Reuse content