Mark Oaten abandoned the race for the Liberal Democrat leadership yesterday after admitting he did not have the backing of fellow MPs.
The home affairs spokesman, who had been trailing in the four-way contest, also blamed a row over a leaked private e-mail for forcing his withdrawal. It leaves Sir Menzies Campbell, Simon Hughes, the party president, and MP Chris Huhne to battle to succeed Charles Kennedy.
Sir Menzies launched his campaign yesterday, declaring that under his stewardship, the party would be “hammering on the doors of power”.
He surrounded himself with high-profile young backers in an effort to cast off suggestions he is too old, at 64, to lead a mainstream political party. He insisted he was more determined than he had been when he entered politics in 1970 and more energised than when he became an MP in 1987.
“I want to be the leader of a strong, effective, and principled party. We are impatient for national power and we are hungry for the fight,” he said.
Mr Oaten put himself forward when only Sir Menzies had declared his candidacy to ensure there would be a contest among party members. But it had become clear that many of the MPs who nominated him had done so for the same reason and were in fact set to vote for rival candidates.
Despite a relatively higher profile as the party’s public face on key issues such as anti-terrorism laws, he had slipped behind even Mr Huhne, an MP for eight months, in the betting. He had also become entangled in a row over leaked e-mails, with Mr Kennedy’s office accusing his team of leaking messages implying the former leader was supporting him.
Announcing his decision outside the House of Commons, Mr Oaten said: “What has become very clear in the last few days is that support (from party members) is not matched by my colleagues in parliament.”
He said he would not immediately declare his support for any of “three excellent candidates that bring different qualities to lead this party”.
Sir Menzies, who declared he would stand immediately after Mr Kennedy quit, said he and the party were serious about politics. “Under my leadership the Liberal Democrats would not be making polite interjections from the sidelines, we would be hammering on the doors of power,” he declared.
At the launch the UK’s youngest MP, East Dunbartonshire’s Jo Swinson, 25, praised Sir Menzies’s “unique blend of statesmanship, warmth, and determination to win”.
Nominations close next Wednesday, followed by a ballot of all 73,000 LibDem members. Ballot papers will be sent out on February 6 and close on March 1, with the victor unveiled the next day, on the eve of the party’s spring conference in Harrogate.
Mr Hughes, campaigning in Fife ahead of next month’s Dunfermline & West Fife by-election, said: “At the last election, we were second here with a big increase in our vote. This will be a straight choice between Tony Blair’s representative and Willie Rennie.”