Campbell late favourite as Lib Dems' poll ratings recover

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The Liberal Democrats have bounced back from their slump in the opinion polls as the party prepares to announce the name of its new leader today.

A "poll of polls" study for The Independent shows that the Liberal Democrats averaged 19 per cent in the surveys conducted by ICM, MORI, Populus and YouGov in February - up from a disappointing 16 per cent in January. The findings suggest the party has largely recovered from the damaging publicity over the ousting of Charles Kennedy as leader and the personal lives of leading figures Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, who compiled the figures, said the Liberal Democrats' revival seemed to be more at Labour's expense than the Tories'. Although the Conservatives (37 per cent) are now one point ahead of Labour (36 per cent), Professor Curtice described the broad picture as "neck and neck". In January, the two main parties were both on 38 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats' showing improved after their surprise victory in last month's Dunfermline and West Fife by-election. But their new leader will be hoping to achieve a further boost because the party averaged 22 per cent in the polls last summer.

Voting closed at noon yesterday in the ballot of the Liberal Democrats' 73,000 members, which will determine Mr Kennedy's successor. The result will be announced in London this afternoon. Allies of the three candidates - Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting leader; Chris Huhne, the party's Treasury spokesman, and Mr Hughes, its president - insisted that they could win but admitted privately that they could not predict today's result.

There was relief in the Campbell camp as their man re-emerged as the bookmakers' favourite as the election came to a close. Sir Menzies started the race as the clear front-runner but came under strong pressure from Mr Huhne, whose vigorous campaign saw him become the bookies' favourite.

Ladbrokes, who put both Sir Menzies and Mr Huhne at 5/6 on Tuesday, made Sir Menzies the 8-11 favourite yesterday with Mr Huhne at even money and Mr Hughes at 20-1.

Robin Hutchison, Ladbrokes' spokesman, said: "The worm has turned and Campbell has his nose in front again. It still looks very close, but he would appear to have the edge going into the final furlong."

The incoming leader, who will make his debut at the party's spring conference in Harrogate this weekend, will face an immediate challenge to spell out exactly where the Liberal Democrats stand on key policies.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has written to all three candidates asking them to make clear the party's stance on crime, security and antisocial behaviour; public spending pledges; local income tax; working with the Tories; child trust funds and the New Deal for the jobless. Mr Straw said: "The Liberal Democrats have a tendency to try to be all things to all people.

"Of course, there are decent and honourable people who are Liberal Democrats. But as a party, their inconsistencies expose them as what they really are - a loose franchise held together by a combination of double standards and sanctimonious clichés.

"If the Liberal Democrats are to establish any credibility, it is time for whoever is chosen as their new leader to tell the British people exactly where they stand."