Mark Oaten is today preparing to stand for the Liberal Democrat leadership as Sir Menzies Campbell quashed speculation he would be a "caretaker leader" if he wins the battle to succeed Charles Kennedy.
Hopes among Sir Menzies's supporters that he could win unchallenged look certain to be dashed by Mr Oaten, the party's home affairs spokesman. He came close to confirming his candidacy last night, telling the BBC: " It's quite clear to me that party members want a contest, they want a say in who will be the next leader of this party. We're also getting lots of support for me putting my name forward. I'm feeling full of energy and buoyed up by the response I have had."
Mr Oaten, 41, was taking final soundings over the strength of his support, but was understood to have a campaign team in place. On the party's right, he is an economic liberal whose supporters will argue that his youth will give the party a modernising appeal.
Senior party members believe some younger MPs who are backing Sir Menzies, 64, will try to push him out before the next general election so that one of them can take over. One said: "Having kicked out Charles [Kennedy], some people may get a taste for regicide. That would hugely damage the party. "
Lord Steel of Aikwood, a former Liberal Party leader, warned: "Those young Turks who see themselves as future leaders will be making a big mistake if they support Ming [Campbell] merely as a stop-gap ... It is someone of the gravitas of Ming who is needed to keep a cool head in the next three-party contest."
A spokesman for Sir Menzies said: "If he wins, he will serve right up to and beyond the next general election."
Liberal Democrat MPs predicted a three-way race between Sir Menzies, the acting leader and favourite, Mr Oaten and Simon Hughes, the party's president. Supporters of Mr Hughes said they had the seven MPs needed to nominate him.
Allies of Sir Menzies, who would be 67 or 68 by the next election, portrayed him as having the experience and clout to take on the "callow and inexperienced" Tory leader, David Cameron. Nick Clegg, who rejected pressure from the former party leader Paddy Ashdown to run this time, said: "Ming Campbell has the credibility and authority to settle our nerves and take the fight to a rather synthetic, reinvented Conservative Party. He should take us into the next general election and well beyond."
Sir Menzies pledged to restore "a sense of unity and purpose" to the party before the local government elections in May. He won the backing of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, who broke his silence on internal party matters to say Sir Menzies would provide "weight and substance and seriousness" in a political debate obsessed with "modishness and flim-flam".
The father of the deposed Mr Kennedy predicted the party would lose thousands of votes and members. Ian Kennedy, 79, said: "I would hope they [the plotters] improve their skills in this leadership race because, over the past few weeks, they didn't shine very well. If you're going to have a putsch you should do it properly, even if it is objectionable."
A Populus poll for The Times, carried out between Friday and Sunday, found that support for the Liberal Democrats had dropped three points since last month to 16 per cent their lowest rating since 2001.
Support for Labour was up one point on 39 per cent while the Conservatives were also up one on 36 per cent.Reuse content