Kennedy successor could be chosen in eight weeks

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The Liberal Democrats plan to install a new leader within eight weeks with a fast-track election campaign to find a successor to Charles Kennedy.

The party's ruling federal executive agreed unanimously to the "fastest possible timetable" ready to have the new leader in place for the spring conference in Harrogate on 3 March.

Nominations opened last night and will close on 25 January to allow the result to be declared in London on 2 March, the day before the annual spring conference opens, to give the new leader their first showcase before the party faithful. Ballot papers will go out to members on 6 February.

Lord Rennard, the party's chief executive, said: "We have decided the election timetable will be the fastest possible. There was a strong feeling that we needed to get on with things."

Dates of hustings are yet to be determined.

Under the party's constitution, any MP can stand for the leadership. The party's notoriously hard-to-govern national federal executive committee has discretion over the timing of the contest.

However, the complex nature of the party's procedures limit the opportunity for a swift ballot. Rule changes introduced last year mean that each contender must go through a complex nomination process designed to veto no-hope candidates.

MPs must get nominations from 10 per cent of the party MPs - currently seven signatures. They must also be nominated by 200 rank and file members spread across at least 20 local constituency parties.