Parliament: Kennedy confident of clear win

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The Independent Online
CHARLES KENNEDY claimed that he was still confident of a "clear win" in the Liberal Democrat leadership race despite claims from his rivals that the contest was now too close to call. As the race passed its halfway stage yesterday, private polling showed that the MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West was on course to receive 42 per cent of first preferences, ahead of Simon Hughes on 33 per cent.

However, Mr Hughes, MP for Southwark North and Bermondsey, stressed that when second preference votes in the ballot were taken into account, he was in effect "neck and neck" with Mr Kennedy in the ballot of the party's 90,000 members. Bookmakers William Hill yesterday installed Mr Kennedy as the strong favourite at 1-6, with Mr Hughes on 5-1, Malcolm Bruce on 10-1, David Rendel on 20-1 and Jackie Ballard at 33-1.

Following The Independent's own poll yesterday which found that Mr Hughes had the overwhelming backing of party activists, the London MP declared that he now had the vital momentum to win the contest.

While most MPs have declared for the Scottish front-runner, Mr Hughes produced an updated list of supporters among MEPs, MSPs, Welsh AMs, regional chairmen, prospective parliamentary candidates and council leaders, to claim a shift of votes towards his own candidacy.

Speaking at Westminster yesterday, Mr Hughes said that he was "serious" that a Liberal Democrat leader could be Prime Minister within the next 10 years if the electoral system was reformed.

Once electoral reform was in place, the party's fortunes could "take off" as long as it had the right leader, he said.

But the Kennedy camp maintained their position that the 39-year-old MP's talent as a communicator was helping him keep his lead among the members. Matthew Taylor MP, who chairs the Kennedy campaign, said that he had attracted many new supporters in recent weeks and had conducted an "energetic campaign".

He said: "Other candidates are still making rival claims to be in second place to Charles. The truth is no one knows for sure, but the response we are getting for him is overwhelmingly positive."

Just over half of party members are believed to have cast their ballots and the remainder have been urged to vote before polls close on 6 August. The winner will be announced on 9 August.