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Kennedy to scrap poll for deputy

CHARLES KENNEDY will order a radical overhaul of the Liberal Democrats and appoint his deputy if he wins the leadership contest today. The MP for Skye, Ross and Inverness West,tipped to win the close contest against his main challenger Simon Hughes, will also call for a rethink of the role of the party's MPs.

Most controversially, he wants to transform the deputy leader post occupied by Alan Beith for the past seven years, which critics claim is a "non- job". The deputy had been elected annually in a ballot of the parliamentary party. Favour-ites include his campaign manager, Matthew Taylor, MP for Truro and St Austell.

Under the plan, a new post of party chairman would also be created to form a stronger link between the Commons, the leader's office and the wider party. The post, elected by the party's 44 MPs, would mirror that of the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee.

The aim is to ensure Mr Kennedy does not repeat what has been seen as Paddy Ashdown's failure to consult with and listen to his MPs. Mr Kennedy also plans to reducespokesperson jobs for MPs, releasing backbenchers to take on stronger campaigning roles.

With the increase in the number of MPs at the general election, every one is a spokesman for a different subject, a position seen as absurd by the Kennedy camp. "We want a modern, campaigning party with MPs using their talents in the country and not stuck in the Commons," said a senior source. "Paddy was very good at getting out among the people, but many of us were left in Westminster." A Kennedy victory is not expected to be accompanied by an immediate reshuffle. Instead, new jobs will be allocated next month as the new leader opens debate about his plans for the roles of MPs, the deputy and party chairman.

Mr Hughes, MP for Southwark North and Bermondsey, is expected to be given a senior job in any reshuffle in an attempt to unify the party's "armchair" members and activists.

Although Mr Hughes appeared on Friday to have conceded victory to his rival, his supporters insisted yesterday he could win large numbers of second-preference votes and the race was still "neck and neck". Mr Hughes said: "The best of my information and judgement suggests it is going to be very close. Far from conceding defeat I am still hoping I can pull it off."

The Liberal Democrats believe 65 per cent of their 90,000 members voted in the postal ballot, which closed on Friday. The left-wing candidate Jackie Ballard appears to have clinched a strong third place. Other contenders are the economics spokesman, Malcolm Bruce, and the social security spokesman, David Rendel. The result is expected at 3pm.