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Former adviser tipped for seat

ALAN LEAMAN, who was Paddy Ashdown's head of office and closest adviser until last year, is emerging as a front-runner to fight the key marginal seat of Oxford West against John Patten, Secretary of State for Education.

Mr Leaman is on a six-person shortlist in a keenly fought contest for the Liberal Democrat nomination. The seat is one of the top 10 Tory- Liberal Democrat marginals in the country and the main one held by a Cabinet minister.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping that the same fate will befall Mr Patten as his namesake Chris, who was dislodged in Bath by the Liberal Democrats in the 1992 general election. The seat, which Mr Patten held by 3,554 votes in the general election, needs only a 3 per cent swing to fall to the Liberal Democrats.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, wants Mr Leaman to play a key role in the management and strategy of the party.

But Mr Ashdown, also a former chairman of the party's education policy panel, faces strong local competition from Martin Horwood and Evan Harris, both Oxford University graduates. Other contestants are Dr Jeremy Hyde, who fought Windsor and Maidenhead in the general election, Janet Salmon from west London and Zebarnoo Gifford, an activist with a prominent role in ethnic minority politics.

While the seat contains the university, it also includes Abingdon, hit hard by the recession and whose voters dislike any suggestion that they are overshadowed by Oxford.

Tory fears about losing the seat were highlighted in a confidential report after the general election prepared by Conservative Central Office which said some of Mr Patten's 'fire-and-brimstone rhetoric' on education was not going down 'at all well in highly sophisticated and culturally liberal seats' like Oxford West.