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Friday, 16 March, 2001, 18:11 GMT
Fight like we could win

The Liberal Democrats are almost flatlining in the polls but the task facing party leader Charles Kennedy is to make his team look like winners in an election where we already all know the outcome, says Jo Phillips
By Jo Phillips

If William Hague thought it'd make him popular, he'd probably have Ann Widdecombe dressed in camouflage gear leading the shadow cabinet out onto Dartmoor shooting sheep.

Jo Phillips
Jo Phillips was head of media in Paddy Ashdown's office when the Yeovil MP was Liberal Democrat leader
Along with a handful of other Ashdown confidants, she was part of the eponymous 'Jo Group' which advised the party leader on his relations - and secret negotiations - with Tony Blair and New Labour
In fact, it's something of a surprise that the Tories haven't managed to pin the blame for foot-and-mouth on asylum seekers - but surely it's only a matter of time.

If only one could laugh at such a ludicrous idea. But the echoes of Hague's speech at the Tories' recent spring conference in Harrogate, where he warned of Britain becoming a "foreign" land, are rather too recent for that.

There's nothing so desperate as politicians clambering on bandwagons - and heaven knows they all do it.

But Hague's Tories have plumbed new depths in their desperation, trampling over the bodies of Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, the European ideals of Ted Heath and the dull decency of John Major.

Trampling over Ken Clarke

It's not a pretty sight but to be perfectly honest neither is the smug expression on Keith Vaz's face or the faux contrition of Peter Mandelson - both cleared of any wrongdoing but neither apparently any more aware of what's right or wrong than they were before.

The biggest challenge facing Charles Kennedy is to make his team look like winners. But in an election where we all know who'll be the ultimate victor, that's a pretty daunting task

They seem to represent a New Labour belief that the fundamental difference is whether you get caught or not.

The smell of stale smoke and beer behind closed doors is almost preferable to the breeze of sleaze that wafts through New Labour only faintly masked by char-grilled vegetables and burning ambition.

Flatlining Kennedy

So what of the Lib Dems? Almost flatlining in most polls - except one from Mori which asked people how they'd vote if they thought the Lib Dems could win in their constituency.

Apparently the outcome would give the Lib Dems 216 seats, Labour 358 and the Tories just 54. That may be the stuff of Charles Kennedy's dreams but it's hard to imagine such a poll disturbing the sleep of anyone at Labour or Tory HQs.

But what such a poll does underline is that on the whole, people prefer to back winners.

The biggest challenge facing Charles Kennedy is to make his team look like winners; but in an election where we all know who'll be the ultimate victor, that's a pretty daunting task.

It's not impossible. Labour is tainted by sleaze already and the Tories have never looked so like losers.

Charles Kennedy is not going to be prime minister after this election but between now and then he has to lead the party as though that Mori poll result is a possibility.

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