Oaten pulls out of Lib-Dem leadership contest

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Indy Politics

Mark Oaten has pulled out of the race to succeed Charles Kennedy as leader of the Liberal Democrats after admitting that he had failed to gain enough support from the party's MPs.

He made his surprise announcement 48 hours after his campaign was plunged into chaos when The Independent published leaked e-mails showing that Mr Kennedy had helped him gain the necessary seven signatures from MPs to allow him to stand.

Yesterday Mr Oaten acknowledged that the controversy over the e-mails had been "a factor" in his decision, but it had been prompted by the lack of support among MPs. It emerged on Wednesday that Mr Oaten did not even enjoy the backing of six of the seven MPs who signed his nomination papers. Only his campaign manager Lembit Opik intended to vote for him.

Mr Oaten said: "I was very upset that private conversations I had been having with Charles ended up in the press. Of course that was a factor because I wanted this to be a positive election campaign and frankly when you start getting leaks in newspapers and things like that, then that's not the kind of campaign I want to be involved in."

Aides, who were shocked by his decision to pull out of the race after only nine days, insisted Mr Oaten enjoyed the backing of activists from 70 constituencies. Mr Oaten admitted: "What has become clear in the last few days is that that support is not matched by my colleagues in Parliament."

Mr Opik condemned the leaking of e-mails as "a violation of trust". He said: "All I can say is whatever the motives of the person who released that information to The Independent, it is simply not the way the Liberal Democrats should do business."

Mr Oaten and his allies decided to throw in the towel on Wednesday and confirmed his decision over breakfast at his south London home yesterday. He said he was going to spend the weekend with his family before deciding whether to back one of the three remaining candidates.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's acting leader, launched his campaign by promising to harness the talents of the rising stars backing his bid. Saying the Liberal Democrats were "impatient for national power", he said: "I am serious about politics and so too is this party. Under my leadership the Liberal Democrats would not be making polite interjections from the sidelines, we would be hammering on the doors of power."

Vince Cable, the party's treasury spokesman and one of Sir Menzies' backers, sketched out a policy to replace the plan for a 50p top rate of tax on incomes over £100,000. He suggested that tax thresholds could be raised by £10,000 to take many low-paid people out of the tax net; "green" taxes, particularly on aviation; a capital gains tax and a property tax related to people's wealth.

Simon Hughes, who is seen as Sir Menzies's main rival, announced the backing of three more MPs, taking his tally to 10. They were Paul Rowen, Mike Hancock and Phil Willis. Mr Willis said: "At a time when the UK political map is being redrawn round a narrow 'ToryBlairite' agenda, Simon Hughes offers the nation and the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to have a radical leader with a genuine liberal agenda."

The third candidate is Chris Huhne, the party's economics spokesman.