Chris Huhne, the rank outsider in the Liberal democrat leadership contest, is on course for victory, according to the only poll of party members taken since the contest began. It suggests that Mr Huhne will lead in the opening round of voting, and will narrowly beat the party's acting leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, in the second round.
The poll, of 401 party members, gave Mr Huhne 32 per cent of first preference votes, Sir Menzies 29 per cent, and Simon Hughes 23 per cent, with 16 per cent undecided. It also suggested that if Mr Hughes was eliminated in the first round, his votes would then divide almost equally between the remaining two candidates, making Mr Huhne the winner by a margin of 52-48.
It would be an extraordinary upset if Liberal Democrats chose a leader who has been in Parliament for only eight months over two seasoned campaigners with a combined total of more than 40 years as MPs.
One question asked by the pollsters, YouGov, was whether respondents agreed that "Chris Huhne has too little experience of being a Westminster MP to lead the Liberal Democrats". 52 per cent said no; 36 per cent said yes; and 12 per cent did not express a view.
Mr Huhne said: "We have been inundated with offers of support and there has been a real buzz about the campaign at hustings.
"This is hard evidence of what we have suspected for some time: this is now a two-horse race between Ming and me."
Previously, it had appeared that Sir Menzies was the clear front-runner. He has more MPs backing him that his two rivals put together, including the most senior members of the Liberal Democrats' shadow cabinet. A spokesman for Sir Menzies said: "This poll does not accord with any of the canvassing that we have been doing throughout the campaign."
The former leader Paddy Ashdown threw his weight behind Sir Menzies yesterday. He said, in a letter sent to all party members: "We will need a leader of undisputed authority and credibility. That is why I am supporting Ming Campbell.
"Ming is not just a party leader, he is also a national leader. He is a politician with the stature to take on and beat Gordon Brown and David Cameron. My judgement is that the British public will tire of a politics characterised by flim-flam and modishness. If elected, Ming will offer principled leadership based on values and conviction."
The poll also suggested that party members think Sir Menzies has most of the qualities a party leader needs. He scored higher than either of his rivals on qualities such as being "best placed to lead a united party", having the "right experience", being honest, and coming over best in Parliament and on radio and television.
However, 36 per cent thought he was too old; only 27 per cent thought he had the right policies; and, most damningly, only 7 per cent thought he would attract young voters.
Mr Huhne scored highest on knowing about "real life outside politics" and having the right policies.
Mr Hughes was thought to be the best at attracting in young voters to the Liberal Democrats, but 40 per cent said he was "too unreliable" to be party leader.
The poll was commissioned by John Stevens, a former Conservative MEP who defected to the Liberal Democrats.
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