Leadership contenders square up to battle over Lib Dems' top job

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Indy Politics

The Liberal Democrats face a divisive contest for the leadership of their party after it became clear yesterday that acting leader Sir Menzies Campbell is unlikely to succeed Charles Kennedy unopposed.

Hopes of a quick coronation for Sir Menzies after the dramatic events of the weekend evaporated when the party's president Simon Hughes hinted that he would stand after the timetable for the leadership election is agreed today, Mr Hughes also launched a strongly worded attack on the "unacceptable and inexcusable" behaviour of some MPs.

Mark Oaten, the party's Home Affairs spokesman, was also taking soundings about the leadership bid, although some MPs questioned whether he could gather the seven nominations required to secure a place on the ballot. Backers of Sir Menzies, the only MP to formally announce his intention to stand for the leadership, said he had gained pledges of support from around half of Liberal Democrat MPs.

A straw poll carried out by the BBC suggested that at least 23 MPs were now backing the acting leader, who is the overwhelming favourite to take Mr Kennedy's place.

However, angry recriminations continued over the unprecedented mutiny by more than half of the party's MPs that finally forced Charles Kennedy to succumb to the inevitable and quit on Saturday.

Mr Hughes attacked MPs for plotting leadership campaigns before Christmas. Insisting that his words were not directed at Sir Menzies, he told the BBC: "It was clearly the case that some people began to organise leadership contests last year when Charles was very clearly still in harness.

"That seems to me to be unacceptable and inexcusable."

Meanwhile, there was anger at the parliamentary revolt which finally forced Mr Kennedy to stand down on Saturday after 25 MPs said they would not serve on the front bench if he continued as leader. Some MPs critcised Sir Menzies for failing to challenge Mr Kennedy when he addressed MPs before Christmas.

Others accused Mr Oaten of being "duplicitous" for backing Mr Kennedy in public while criticising his leadership to fellow MPs in private.

However, MPs including Mr Kennedy himself, rejected any talk of electing Sir Menzies unopposed in a "coronation" like that which brought Michael Howard to the Conservative leadership.

Senior backbenchers, including the former education spokesman Phil Willis, warned that they would stand as a "stalking horse" candidate to allow the party's 75,000 members to have a say if the front runners refused to force an election.

Mr Kennedy warned: "Members feel that they want to have a direct input. They have tried very hard over the last few days and weeks to make their views known.

"I just hope they get the opportunity to make those views known because they don't want to lose their active engagement."

Mr Willis said: "I want to see the people who have engineered the downfall of Kennedy now put to the test so the membership have the opportunity to understand. What I'm absolutely definite about is there must not be a small cartel who organised the downfall of Kennedy now organise the succession."

MPs declaring their support for Sir Menzies included a powerful group from the so-called "Orange Book" modernisers, including the Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, who played a key role in organising the insurrection that brought down Mr Kennedy's leadership.

At least 10 members of the party's Shadow Cabinet are thought to back Sir Menzies including David Laws, the work and pensions spokesman, Sarah Teather, the local government spokesman, Don Foster, the culture spokesman and Norman Lamb, the trade and industry spokesman.

Mr Laws said: "In my view Menzies Campbell is the outstanding candidate. I think he is the candidate not only that both of the other political parties most fear but I think he is also the candidate most able to deliver what Liberal Democrats now badly need which is a unity of purpose and a clarity on policy."

Lord Steel, the former party leader, also threw his weight behind Mr Menzies, saying he had the "stature" to be leader.

But Paul Holmes, the party chairman told the BBC he would back Mr Hughes. He said: "Simon's a well-established politician, he was elected by the members as president only 15 months ago, he has clearly got widespread support across the country and his political views are very much the ones I share."

Mr Hughes told the BBC: "I will make my intentions clear once we, the party, have decided what the process is and that will be within a week from now. Secondly, there ought to be a debate about where we go and I think the members will want that, irrespective of how many candidates there are taking part in that - I sense that there is a mood for that."

Mr Oaten said: "Both Simon and Ming are much better known than I am but in a leadership campaign you get known, you get a chance to put your case to the members and that is important.

"At some point David Cameron was on two per cent wasn't he in one of those opinion polls? But things can change in an election campaign."

Contenders for the crown

SIR MENZIES CAMPBELL, 64, 1-2 favourite

Respected deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesman, now acting leader after Charles Kennedy's resignation on Saturday. A former Olympic runner and leading Scottish QC, he has been prominent in opposing the Iraq war and was the first to declare his intention to stand after Mr Kennedy's resignation. Criticised for not giving Mr Kennedy full public backing before Christmas. Backers include: Norman Baker, Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, Ed Davey, Don Foster, Norman Lamb, Sarah Teather, David Laws, Lynne Featherstone.

*IMON HUGHES, 54, 7-2 second favourite

Popular with the grassroots, the taxi-driving MP for Southwark is a strong contender from the left of the party. As party president, a position elected by the rank and file, Mr Hughes, who came second to Charles Kennedy in 1999, has been assiduous in touring the country, and helping members campaign. He is less popular within the parliamentary party. Would represent a counterblast to the more rightwing modernising fraternity within the party typified by the Orange Book authors. Backers include: Steve Webb, Evan Harris, Paul Holmes.

MARK OATEN, 41, 6-1

The party's bright and ambitious home affairs spokesman, who has made a name for himself spearheading opposition to the Government's anti-terror laws. An effective operator who has consistently punched above his weight in dealings with Charles Clarke and David Davis. He backed Charles Kennedy publicly, but has faced criticism for briefings in private, which is likely to cost him vital support among MPs. Currently taking soundings about a leadership bid, but some feel he may not muster the support needed to launch his candidacy. Backers include: Lembit Opik.