Lib Dem candidates go head-to-head in leadership campaign

But some activists complain that they can't find much to choose between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne
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Indy Politics

Liberal Democrat leadership hopefuls Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne yesterday set out their rival bids to succeed Sir Menzies Campbell in the first head-to-head meeting of the campaign.

Nominations close on Wednesday. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday before addressing party members at the first leadership hustings in Rugby, Warwickshire, Mr Clegg said yesterday that Britain needed to establish "red lines" with Washington over defence. He argued that the Prime Minister's decision to allow the United States to use two UK bases as part of the controversial anti-ballistic missile programme was "selling the country short".

He added that Gordon Brown's decision to participate in America's "Son of Star Wars" missile defence programme has made Britain "tantamount to a vassal state".

He signalled his intention to distance Britain from American defence policy, arguing that the Government's decision to allow the US to use radar systems at RAF Menwith Hill and RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire destroyed British military independence and credibility. He said one of his first acts if elected leader of the Liberal Democrats would be to force a full debate in the House of Commons on Britain's participation in the missile programme.

"It's high time that we started seeking to draw red lines with Washington. This decision makes us tantamount to a vassal state to the Pentagon on military matters," he said.

"Under my leadership, I will make absolutely sure that the Lib Dems will be very outspoken in making the case for multilateralism and a smart, hard-headed foreign policy."

In a sign that foreign and defence policy will be a key theme of the leadership race, Chris Huhne yesterday told party members that he would scrap Britain's commitment to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Both candidates made impassioned speeches before a behind-closed-doors question-and-answer session with the media excluded. Mr Huhne went on to identify global warming as the central issue "not merely of this campaign, but of my life". He called for Britain to scale back what he said was an "unacceptable" £20bn commitment to Trident nuclear missiles when troops in Iran and Afghanistan went without basic kit.

He then mocked Gordon Brown as the "patron saint of tax accountants". "What he has to explain is how he can explain the enormous increase in resources in education and health while nobody thinks that we have had anything like an improvement in services."

At the start of the contest, Mr Clegg is enjoying a clear advantage with 28 nominations from MPs to Mr Huhne's 10, bolstering his status as favourite.

However, the environment spokesman did receive one major vote of support from an establishment figure this weekend as Lord Steel, the former Liberal leader, declared his support on the basis of his stance on the Trident nuclear deterrent. "I had not intended to declare support for either of the candidates since I have always taken the view that former leaders do not get involved," said Lord Steel. "However, Paddy Ashdown's support for Nick Clegg has blown my cover."

The contest will be decided by a ballot of the party's entire membership, although figures suggest a strong preference for Mr Clegg among his colleagues at Westminster.

Nevertheless, some Liberal Democrat activists said that they want more contenders because the two rivals for the top job are too similar. Both men are former MEPs who entered Parliament in 2005. Both went to Westminster school and Oxbridge, and both are former journalists married to foreign-born, high-flying wives, with multilingual children.