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banner Friday, 21 September, 2001, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Leader with most to cheer about
Nyta Mann

As Liberal Democrats gather for their annual conference, they can be forgiven for doing so in self-congratulatory mood.

They arrive in Bournemouth without much display of the kind of deep divisions afflicting their Labour and Conservative rivals.

The Liberal Democrats of all people have to be a free-thinking political party

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy is universally judged to have emerged from the general election campaign as the only party leader to have enhanced his standing with the public.

His party increased its number of seats to its largest haul since the 1923 election - with, unlike 1997, an increased share of the national vote this time. And it is in power, in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly coalition administrations.

Though in normal circumstances all this would make for a triumphalist conference, the tone will be muted following the terrorist attacks on the US.

'Fair play' for Duncan Smith

Mr Kennedy had been expected to use the week to strongly highlight his party as a safe haven for mainstream Tories following Iain Duncan Smith's election as Conservative leader.

Iain Duncan Smith: Deserves a chance to establish credibility
"If politics was operating under the conventional rules of engagement, as it were, that would be the case," says Kennedy.

"But at the moment, politics isn't. So I think to do so would be quite unseemly, frankly."

In any case, "I wouldn't over-stoke expectations of great rafts of defections to us".

"I think there will be a sense of fair play in that Iain Duncan Smith has got a clear mandate from his party - although it does appear to be fairly bitterly divided nonetheless," according to the Lib Dem leader.

"He deserves a reasonable period to establish his credentials and his leadership, and I think a lot of Conservatives will take that view - and they're right to."

Policy overhaul

Kennedy also has enough to occupy himself with. He has just launched a comprehensive review of all Lib Dem policy - the first such complete overhaul since the 1980s.

Does that mean totemic Lib Dem policies such as the penny on income tax for public services - a proposal that has in the past been seen by some senior Lib Dems as an encumbrance, but by others as a key symbolic differentiation from the two bigger, tax-cutting parties - are under threat?

Tony Blair: Failed to deliver on vote reform referendum
"Everything is up for discussion, by definition," says Kennedy.

"Something that is under threat might emerge from the other end of this process with enhanced status. But we of all people have to be a free-thinking political party.

"It's not a matter of saying something's under threat. We might come up with something better."

Lib-Lab links cut

Meanwhile, just days ahead of the Lib Dem conference, Mr Kennedy pulled the plug on the Lib-Lab joint cabinet committee (JCC) set up when Paddy Ashdown was Lib Dem leader.

The announcement that both sides had agreed to pull out - though formally it is only "suspended" - of the JCC was no surprise.

It had been dormant to the point of comatose for some time, and the prospects of electoral reform for Westminster - the chief Lib Dem desire - have drastically receded since it was first set up.

Many Lib Dems also resented being strung along, as they saw it, by a process whose primary purpose was to maintain the size of New Labour's big tent.

How hard did Prime Minister Tony Blair try to stop the Lib Dem leader from disbanding the JCC?

"Welll, the accurate answer is that we would both have been in favour of maintaining the work of the JCC but the practical problem was that there was no work for it to do," Kennedy says.

Paddy Ashdown: Diaries detail secret meetings with Blair
Mr Blair's fault, surely, since it is his government that broke its 1997 election promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform, and his decision not to put it back on the agenda for this parliament?

"Fault, decision, whatever - choose your own vocabulary, but I can't really see what the purpose is of having a committee which meets not to discuss things.

"He would have preferred the institutional relationship to continue but he acknowledged that he didn't feel he had anything he could put in front of it. I think that answers the question."

For the last two years Blair has told Kennedy that their two parties should formally cooperate more on a range of policy areas - "everything from social policy to welfare reform to this, that and the next thing".

But the only real possibility the Lib Dem leader sees for the JCC to perhaps be reconvened would be in the event of a referendum on joining the euro.

'Dear diary...'

Blair's desire to pull in the Lib Dems on a broader front than constitutional reform is a key theme of the just-published second volume of Ashdown's diaries, covering 1997 to 1999.

The diaries make fascinating reading not just for the secret meetings and negotiations between the author and New Labour's top brass, but for the intensity of the relationship between Blair and Ashdown as the latter keeps hoping - and being let down - for movement towards electoral reform to be delivered by the former.

Not unlike the relationship between a philandering husband and his na´ve mistress, some Lib Dems have privately observed.

"I have on principle stayed very much on the opposite side of the street as far as the Paddy-Tony relationship is concerned and the diaries and all that," is as far as Kennedy will be drawn on the subject.

"Suffice to say, I am not keeping a diary."

See also:

20 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Lib-Lab committee disbanded
21 Sep 01 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy must seize chance
10 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Ashdown: Blair lacks confidence
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