With their leader now gone, Britain’s Liberal Democrats have begun the search for his replacement, with a meeting of the party’s federal executive tonight.For a centrist group often derided by satirists as too soft and cuddly, the resignation of Charles Kennedy has prompted a rare round of public feuding. There are allegations of a plot to oust the Scotsman, who left after admitting a drink problem. His parting warning to the Lib Dems was to hold an open leadership election, rather than crowning deputy leader and current favourite Sir Menzies Campbell outright. Party President Simon Hughes is a potential candidate for the leadership.He wants all Lib Dems to have a say. “Party members would like an election. For very understandable reasons. The leader resigned after pressure from colleagues in parliament, not because the membership had voted him out. I think they want to say what happens next, and that’s a perfectly proper thing. Elections are preferable to coronations, especially in democracies,” he said. Kennedy’s favoured candidate is Mark Oaten, the party’s home affairs spokesman who opposed the Labour government’s anti-terror laws. However, his support may not count as much as that of another high profile Liberal Democrat, Lord Ashdown. He backs 64-year-old Campbell, and warns against a drawn-out and bitter leadership battle. It is a point shared by many analysts, who argue the Lib Dems need to concentrate on controlling the middle ground as local elections loom in May, and the resurgent Conservates move to the political centre.