Politics - Liberal Democrats: `Chaos' of race fills Ashdown with despair

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The Independent Online
CONFUSION CAUSED by the big field for the Liberal Democrat leadership race has so dismayed Paddy Ashdown that he threatened to throw his hat back in the ring.

Friends of the outgoing Liberal Democrat leader said he was joking, but his threat underlines his concern that the contest to replace him could descend into farce.

The extent of Mr Ashdown's despair over the race emerged yesterday as Charles Kennedy, Don Foster and David Rendel all formally launched their campaigns for the top job. He is understood to be worried that the wide spread of candidates risks a chaotic election with no clear choice of vision for the future direction of the party.

"Paddy would have preferred a clearer choice. I don't think he was serious about standing again. He feels it would be disadvantageous to be engaged at all," said one source close to Mr Ashdown.

The outgoing leader is also concerned that the contest could damage his long-term project with Tony Blair to foster closer links between the Liberal Democrats and New Labour.

Mr Kennedy, seen as the clear front-runner in the race, launched his campaign yesterday with a controversial pledge to extend co-operation with the Government to include welfare policy. The MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West defied critics who claim he is "ambiguous" on Lib-Lab links with a declaration that he wanted to extend discussions to cover pensions, Europe and electoral reform.

Unveiling his manifesto at the National Liberal Club in London, he stressed his party was "of the progressive centre left" and received the backing of a strong block of senior party figures, including 14 MPs, nearly one-third of the parliamentary party, peers and councillors.

The 39-year-old MP declared that he would bring a new style of leadership to the party. "I'm instinctively collegiate, I'm a consulter," he said. He has been accused of being a "lightweight" candidate because of his fondness for appearing on television game shows, but refused to apologise for being a "fully signed up member of the human race".

However, his promise to extend co-operation with Labour to pensions could upset some MPs and peers opposing the Government on welfare cuts. One frontbencher told The Independent he would resign his post if Mr Kennedy made such a move.

Don Foster, MP for Bath and the party's education spokesman, opened his campaign with a pledge to take the Lib-Lab "project" even further to cover health and education. Unfortunately for the Foster camp, Mr Ashdown's charge of chaos and confusion was underlined when four national newspapers and the BBC were barred from the Foster press launch - because the room was too small.

Mr Rendel, MP for Newbury, launched his campaign with a promise to hold a "preferendum" among the 90,000 party members to test opinion on closer links with Labour. Warning against becoming too close, he rejected suggestions that he was a "fringe" candidate and claimed he had the support of the party rank and file.