Sir Menzies Campbell bowed swiftly to the inevitable last night by jumping before he was pushed as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
The 66-year-old MP, who faced an increasingly open revolt inside his party, decided to fall on his sword rather than face a bloody coup like the one that toppled his predecessor, Charles Kennedy, less than two years ago.
Sir Menzies, a respected elder statesman of British politics, rebuilt his party's morale and its machine as it recovered from the trauma of forcing out Mr Kennedy over his drink problem. But it was eclipsed by the battle between Gordon Brown and David Cameron and slumped to 12 per cent in opinion polls, its lowest ratings for six years.
Its leader resigned with dignity, a casualty of Mr Brown's decision not to call a general election this year. With a poll unlikely until 2009 at the earliest, Sir Menzies' position looked increasingly vulnerable.
A whispering campaign against him began on websites run by Liberal Democrat grassroots activists, as The Independent revealed last Thursday.
The writing was on the wall when Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat president, said in a weekend television interview that the leader "has to do better". Yesterday lunchtime, Vince Cable, the deputy leader, admitted on BBC Radio 4 that Sir Menzies' leadership was "under discussion". There was no deputation or plot against him.
Sir Menzies tried to shore up his leadership at the weekend, but soundings among some of his most senior frontbenchers convinced him he lacked the support he needed to carry on. His wife, Elspeth, played a big part in his decision, which was taken over the weekend but not relayed to surprised senior colleagues until yesterday afternoon. He told party workers in private that he did not believe he could turn around the poor polling results in time for the general election.
In a sign he was unhappy at the lack of support, his decision was announced by Mr Hughes and Mr Cable. He did not appear before the television cameras, instead returning to his Edinburgh home.In a statement he said: "It has become clear that, following the Prime Minister's decision not to hold an election, questions about leadership are getting in the way of further progress by the party. Accordingly, I now submit my resignation as leader with immediate effect."
Mr Cable will become acting leader and will deputise at Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow. Nominations for the leadership contest will open today and the new leader will be announced on 17 December. The front-runners are Nick Clegg, the home affairs spokesman, and Chris Huhne, the environment spokesman. There were accusations last night that supporters of Mr Huhne had sought to destabilise Sir Menzies in the hope of triggering an early contest.
Several prominent Liberal Democrats said Sir Menzies had been a victim of ageism. Although his Commons performances improved after a doddery start, he never fully convinced his own party that it would build on the progress it made under Mr Kennedy.
His sudden departure could have implications for all the political parties. Some Liberal Democrats fear that assassinating their second leader in 22 months will make the party look a shambles to some voters.
If a new, younger Liberal Democrat leader enjoys a honeymoon period, a revival could eat into the opinion poll ratings of the Conservatives. This brought some relief in Labour circles last night. A Liberal Democrat revival might prevent the Tories winning back seats held by the third party. " This won't do us any harm at all," said one cabinet minister.
The Prime Minister heaped praise on the outgoing leader and there was speculation that he might offer him a government post. Gordon Brown said: " Sir Menzies Campbell is a man of great stature and integrity who has served his party and country with distinction. His contribution on foreign policy and international affairs is valued throughout the world."
Mr Hughes, the Liberal Democrat president, said: "Over the past two years, Ming has given stability and purpose to our party. Ming has made this decision – as all his political decisions – in the interest of his party. "
Mr Cable insisted that the leader's decision to step down was his own. " He certainly wasn't stabbed in the back," he said."During his time as leader, Ming has earned the respect, affection and gratitude of the party. This was reflected in the warmth with which his speech was received by the party conference."
Some grassroots activists blamed a media campaign against Sir Menzies while others were dismayed by the plotting by the camps forming around potential leaders. Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat MP, said: "It's bad news. I am immensely disappointed in a man of Ming's stature suddenly having to go. We are not learning our lessons from the Kennedy days, that changing the leader doesn't change the fortunes of the party."
The resignation letter
When I was elected Leader of the Party in March 2006 I had three objectives. First, to restore stability and purpose in the party following my predecessor's resignation and the leadership campaign itself, second to make the internal operations of the party more professional, and third to prepare the party for a general election.
With the help of others, I believe that I have fulfilled these objectives, although I am convinced that the internal structures of the party need radical revision if we are to compete effectively against Labour and the Conservatives.
But it has become clear that following the Prime Minister's decision not to hold an election, questions about leadership are getting in the way of further progress by the party.
Accordingly I now submit my resignation as Leader with immediate effect.
I do not intend to hold a press conference or to make any further comment.
Leader, Liberal Democrats
The candidates to take over the party
It has taken just two years in Parliament for Nick Clegg to become the odds-on front-runner to succeed Sir Menzies Campbell.
He let slip his ambitions last month when he admitted he "probably would " stand for the leadership when there was a vacancy for the post.
As a telegenic and articulate 40-year-old, Mr Clegg would provide a youthful new face to the party and could appeal to voters being wooed by David Cameron.
Educated at Westminster School and Cambridge, he dabbled with journalism before moving to work at the European Union. He was elected to the European Parliament in 1999, when he was singled out as a political star of the future by Paddy Ashdown.
Mr Clegg, who is married with two children, swapped Brussels for Westminster at the last election when he was elected for Sheffield Hallam.
Sir Menzies thrust him into the limelight just 10 months later when he appointed him to the home affairs brief. Mr Clegg has sought to develop a policy of "effective liberalism" on crime and immigration and has attacked the Government for eroding civil liberties in the war on terror.
Odds supplied by Ladbrokes
Chris Huhne has been credited with helping to drive climate change to the top of the political agenda by developing far-reaching plans to make Britain carbon neutral by 2050. The former journalist, who was business and city editor of The Independent, sealed his reputation as one of the Liberal Democrats' most ambitious "young turks" by standing against Sir Menzies Campbell for the party leadership within just months after winning a parliamentary seat in the 2005 general election. He secured a seat at the party's top table, and the coveted job of environment spokesman, by coming a creditable second after a campaign widely praised in the party. Mr Huhne, 53, whose wife, Vicky Pryce, is a civil servant, cut his teeth in the European Parliament as MEP for the South-east between 1999 and 2005 and was one of the darlings of the party conference last month. He has written four books, including one arguing for Britain to join the European single currency. He was educated at Westminster School, the Sorbonne and Magdalen College, Oxford, and has long been one of the party's leading thinkers. But his Achilles heel will be his ultra-marginal seat at Eastleigh, which he holds by just 568 votes.
Chief of staff to Sir Menzies Campbell and one of the drivers of the internal party reforms introduced after Charles Kennedy's resignation, Davey, 41, is a confident campaigner who has fronted the party to the press but may be too closely identified with Sir Menzies' reign.
Became the youngest MP when she took Falmouth and Camborne from Labour in 2005, aged 26. The impressive, articulate treasury spokeswoman is believed to be the person Ming was referring to when he said there was a woman who should be considered as a potential leader.
Forced to resign over his drink problem, the former leader never ruled out standing for the job again. He is still popular with party activists, but doubts remain over his readiness to return to the front line. He will also be deterred by the hostility of colleagues who forced him out.
He may be most famous for his celebrity girlfriend but the 42-year-old is an effective MP who led a successful campaign for the Government to invest millions in research into possibility of the earth being hit by an asteroid. Nonetheless, he is a maverick who lacks mainstream support.
A former health spokesman now responsible for drafting the next general election manifesto, Webb is likely to stand as a standard-bearer of the party's left wing. The 42-year-old former professor won his political spurs with highly effective campaigns on benefits and pensions.