A four-way race for the Liberal Democrat leadership begins today when a dark horse, Chris Huhne, announces he will stand.
The party's president, Simon Hughes, confirmed yesterday that he would run and was immediately installed as the bookmakers' favourite to succeed Charles Kennedy, the ousted leader.
Although Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting leader, enjoys the support of most Liberal Democrat MPs, Mr Huhne's decision to stand was a surprise to them because he has only been in the Commons for eight months. His intervention could persuade fellow modernisers to desert Campbell. There were also claims from rival camps that Sir Menzies's performance at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday had cost him some support.
The fourth candidate is Mark Oaten, the party's home affairs spokesman. Launching his campaign, Mr Hughes said the party's success at last May's general election was "not a high water mark" but "a stepping stone to greater progress". He insisted: "We can win many more votes and seats next time." He sought to head off criticism from rival candidates that he would take the party to the left and added that "quality public services" should not mean "an over-mighty state".
Mr Hughes, 54, stressed his campaign was backed by MPs whose main battle in their constituencies was against the Tories as well those who represented former Labour-held seats, as he does in North Southwark and Bermondsey, which he captured at a 1983 by-election. "Four out 10 Britons consider themselves as liberal or liberal-inclined. Half of them have come to us. The other half are waiting to come to us if we go and reach out to them," he said.
Dismissing the idea that he was an old-fashioned Liberal, he said: "I come from the mainstream of the Liberal tradition and the Liberal Democrat tradition. That's in the mainstream of British politics. I know that to appeal to the British people, we need to have policies that understand the pressures on them, the reality of the household budget and the huge personal debt and that are responsible financially and in other ways.'' He believed the main fight would be between Sir Menzies and himself. The new leader will be chosen in a ballot of the party's 75,000 members and Mr Hughes enjoys strong grassroots support. He won more than 70 per cent of the votes when he was elected as the party's president in 2004.
Mr Hughes declared the support of seven MPs - Annette Brooke, Tom Farron, Evan Harris, Paul Holmes, Mark Hunter, Steve Webb and Richard Younger-Ross. They are not nominating any other candidate, despite a loophole that allows MPs to propose more than one.
Mr Oaten named the seven MPs who have nominated him - Bob Russell, Mike Hancock, Paul Rowen, John Hemming, John Leech, Paul Keetch and Lembit Opik.
From journalist to political contender
Despite only entering Parliament last year, as MP for Eastleigh, supporters of Chris Huhne say his experience as an economist, financial journalist and member of the European Parliament make him a genuine contender for the Liberal Democrat leadership.
Mr Huhne, 51, was a journalist for 19 years, including spells on The Independent and Independent on Sunday, and a City economist for five years. He became a member of the European Parliament in 1999, resigning after winning Eastleigh. He was immediately appointed shadow Chief Treasury Secretary by Charles Kennedy.
His campaign is likely to highlight environmental issues, economic competence and public service reforms. During the last parliament he chaired the party's policy commission on public services, and proposed more local control over the National Health Service. "Britain is the most centralised state in Europe, which is the main reason why public services fail to satisfy," he said.
Mr Huhne has written books on issues such as Third World debt, development and European integration, and he backs Britain joining the euro.