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You cowards!

Byline: By MARTIN SHIPTON Western Mail

The top Liberal Democrat in Wales has accused senior party members of cowardice by mounting a whispering campaign aimed at forcing Charles Kennedy out of the leadership. With the heat on Mr Kennedy growing, Lembit Opik, the Montgomeryshire MP who leads the party in Wales, said critics should have the courage to talk to the leader about their concerns.

Some unnamed senior MPs privately say he must improve or stand aside. Concerns about Mr Kennedy's performance were voiced at a meeting of the Lib-Dem 'shadow cabinet' on Tuesday, but nobody asked him to resign. Mr Opik said senior members at the meeting had indicated they would rather give indirect 'feedback' on Mr Kennedy, despite the leader's call for them to talk to him directly.

Mr Opik said, 'What I saw was people who were really beating about the bush. I wasn't really clear what exactly their intentions were. What is questionable here is why go through the press and brief in what I think is a slightly cowardly way, rather than going directly to the boss and having a conversation with him and moving it forward?' Mr Opik said that Mr Kennedy had secured the best result for the party since the 1920s at May's General Election in winning 62 seats.

'I would say if the boss delivers the best result in 82 years, you keep them on,' he added.

Ex-Liberal leader Lord Steel said those concerned should 'put up or shut up'. Lord Steel said Mr Kennedy had made it clear at a meeting of Lib-Dem peers that he would fight on if a leadership election was triggered.Cardiff Central AM Jenny Randerson, who has just been appointed a deputy president of the federal Liberal Democrats, said, 'It seems to me that some of the MPs are trying to play catch-up with the Conservatives and Labour. The Tories have just elected David Cameron and for month after month we have had speculation about Tony Blair stepping down and Gordon Brown taking over. Some senior figures in the party now think we should have a new leader too. 'It defies all logic that people should be thinking in these terms. I am perfectly happy with Charles. I was in London on Tuesday and he was in bullish mood. After every election there's a need to re-evaluate where you are as a party, and I think the way Charles is handling those strategic issues within the party is absolutely right. We are analysing our policies, reaffirming some and looking to change others. 'People should remember that during the general election campaign opinion polls showed Charles with a higher rating than either Tony Blair or Michael Howard.'

Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly leader Mike German said, 'I have no idea who started this talk - it's one of those situations where somebody says someone else has told them what other people are saying.

' Ultimately it's no more than a lot of tittle-tattle.

'I think it is absolutely ludicrous to be talking in terms of our having a change in leader. Of course there are key things to discuss about how we present ourselves as a party, but in my view that will not be helped by changing the leader.

'One of the most important areas we need to be looking at is the delivery of public services. Both Labour and the Conservatives are looking at public service reform in England, although so far as Labour in Wales is concerned, Rhodri Morgan would have us believe he has a different approach. I think we need to reaffirm our community values as Liberals and say that local decision-making is best. That will lead to a healthy diversity.' South Wales West AM Peter Black said, 'There are some people about with huge egos. The MPs need to get a bit more disciplined, and not have unrealistic expectations.

'I don't think Charles is really under threat.

'People should stop briefing against him and let him get on with leading the party.'

At Prime Minister's questions, Tory leader David Cameron taunted Mr Kennedy and what he called the Lib-Dems' 'decapitation strategy' - a reference to the party's failed attempt to unseat senior Tories at the general election. Labour and Conservative MPs jeered Mr Kennedy with shouts of 'bye, bye Charlie'. Mr Kennedy's spokeswoman said, 'Charles Kennedy made it clear to the shadow cabinet that he has no intention of standing down as leader as has been wrongly reported in the media and that he will continue to lead the Liberal Democrats into and beyond the next election.' Lib-Dem leaders can be deposed if a no-confidence motion is approved by a majority of the party's MPs.: Bookies' view:Ladbrokes were last night offering odds of 1/2 on Charles Kennedy quitting as Lib-Dem leader before the next general election, with 6/4 that he will still be in the post.

The favourite to take over is Simon Hughes, with Sir Menzies Campbell not far behind.

The full odds are:

Simon Hughes 5/4

Menzies Campbell 6/4

Mark Oaten 7/1

Edward Davey 7/1

Dr Vincent Cable 12/1

Chris Huhne 16/1

Nick Clegg 20/1

Michael Moore 20/1

David Laws 20/1

Lembit Opik 25/1

Susan Kramer 25/1: Simon Hughes:Simon Hughes, 54, has been a London MP since 1983 when he won the renowned Bermondsey by-election, defeating gay activist Peter Tatchell, the Labour candidate.

Educated at Llandaff Cathedral School, Christ College, Brecon and Cambridge, he has strong support in Wales.

One of the party's most familiar faces, he won the party presidency last year, easily defeating Lembit Opik.: Sir Menzies Campbell:Sir Menzies (pronounced Ming) Campbell, 64, has represented Fife North East since 1987 and became deputy leader of the party in 2003.

He has been the Lib-Dems' chief spokesman on foreign affairs since 1997, arguing strongly against the invasion of Iraq.

A student friend of the late Scottish First Minister Donald Dewar, he was an Olympic runner at 100 metres.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 15, 2005
Words:1003
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