Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy suffered a major defeat at his party's annual conference yesterday - at the hands of Birmingham MP John Hemming.

Mr Hemming (Yardley) led a rebellion against post office policies drawn up by the party leadership, claiming they would be the " Railtrack of the letter boxes".

Mr Kennedy and his allies wanted to sell off the Royal Mail and use the money to subsidise post office branches. They said the £2 billion that would be raised was the only way to stop the branch closure programme.

In the past four years 314 post offices have closed in the West Midlands, more than one in five of all branches.

The policy was presented to the conference, in Blackpool, by Norman Lamb, Lib Dem Trade and Industry spokesman. Its supporters included Lorely Burt, Lib Dem MP for Solihull.

But activists voted in favour of Mr Hemming's proposal that the policy be "referred back", which means no decision is made.

In practice it means the policy has been rejected.

Mr Hemming said he had put forward his own alternative scheme for saving post offices but the party leadership had refused to listen.

He told the conference: "This is about the right of conference to see the alternatives." Mr Hemming compared privatising the Royal Mail to the troubled privatisation of British Rail, warning: "This would be the Railtrack of the letter boxes."

And he sarcastically declared: "There is no alternative", a phrase associated with Margaret Thatcher, who began the trend of privatising public services.

The vote was a major blow to Mr Kennedy, who is already under fire from critics who claim the Lib Dems failed to make enough progress at the last election.