Lib Dem rivals at loggerheads

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RIVAL CAMPS for the Liberal Democrat leadership were in open warfare last night after ignoring Paddy Ashdown's appeals to avoid campaigning until he stands down. Supporters of some of the main contenders were fully engaged in their campaigns and were running down their opponents.

Supporters of the front-runner, Charles Kennedy, said reports that he had the backing of Tony Blair were put about at the weekend to damage him.

The camp backing Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem campaigns manager, was also active, scotching suggestions by critics that he is too Eurosceptic to win the leadership. "He is a lot warmer on Europe than people say he is," said a backer.

Mr Harvey's chances of countering a low profile were being talked up because of the long campaign, with Mr Ashdown not due to stand down until after the European elections in June.

A camp was also forming behind the dark horse, David Rendel, MP for Newbury. "The smart money is on Rendel. He has been very loyal to Ashdown but he has questioned the Lib-Lab co-operation," said a supporter. "He has shown he is dogged and has plenty of determination, and has the backing of senior figures in the Association of Liberal Councillors."

Menzies Campbell was being written off by rivals. "I doubt whether he has got the support he needs," said one.

Others took a sideswipe at Simon Hughes, as the "rebel" candidate against closer co-operation with Labour.

Mr Ashdown predicted on BBC's Breakfast with Frost that Liberal Democrats would enter the Blair cabinet after the election.

"I said to myself that some of these young men and women would not, as they have done over the last 50 years, labour in the vineyards; they would be in government as government ministers and I'm absolutely convinced of that. It will happen and my successor will make it happen."