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The Independent Online
THE Liberal Democrats' most senior parliamentary figures are planning to throw their weight behind Charles Kennedy, the 39-year-old Skye MP, putting his leadership bid on a cast-iron footing, writes Marie Woolf.

Among those expected to support his attempt to succeed Paddy Ashdown is defence spokesman Menzies Campbell, who was viewed as Mr Kennedy's main challenger for the leadership before he ruled himself out of the race. The Fife MP has told friends privately that he is happy with Mr Kennedy's approach. Some feared Mr Kennedy would not keep the Liberal Democrats' channels of co-operation with the Government open, but his supporters have been keen to assure that they will continue to work with Labour on policies they agree on.

Mr Kennedy is also expected to receive the endorsement of Bob Maclennan, former Liberal Democrat President, and Jim Wallace, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament. Last week Baroness Williams of Crosby, one of the four founding members of the SDP and the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on foreign affairs in the Lords, also endorsed his campaign.

He is already publicly supported by Matthew Taylor, the party's chief environment spokesman, who is running his campaign, and is expected to make green issues a key plank of his leadership. He believes that Mr Ashdown has not done enough to capitalise on growing unease within the country over issues such as GM foods.

"The policies we have on the environment are good and we have led on the GM debate, but the current leadership has not used many opportunities to raise it," said a spokesman for Mr Kennedy.

But Mr Kennedy's green credentials could face a tough challenge from Simon Hughes, whose bid for the leadership will be based on reclaiming the party's radical roots. Jackie Ballard will also make poverty, civil liberties and green issues key planks of her leadership challenge.

Education spokesman Don Foster, is regarded as most likely to push for co-operation with the Government while David Rendell is seen as most opposed to Labour links.