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banner Monday, 18 September, 2000, 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK
Kennedy targets Tories
Charles Kennedy addresses the conference
Kennedy needs to win Tory seats at election
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Two days into the Liberal Democrat conference and a clear theme is starting to emerge - target the Tories.

For the party to do well at the next election - and some are talking about the real prospect of them securing 100 seats in the Commons - it needs to take seats from both major parties.

Disillusioned Labour voters are likely to be attracted by the "squeeze the rich" election manifesto, but the most important battles for the Lib Dems will be against Tories.

So it is no surprise that party spokesmen have taken their lead from Charles Kennedy, who branded William Hague a headcase on the first day of the conference, and are laying into the official opposition.

Every speech by party frontbenchers contains a sustained assault on Mr Hague and dire warnings about the disaster a Tory government would be.

Sure, there are sideswipes at Labour. That is necessary to keep hard-line anti-pact party members on board and suggest an independence of spirit.

Former leadership challenger Simon Hughes has been in the forefront of the fiercer attacks, insisting at a fringe meeting which suggested the Lib Dems were now the "new radical left."

Skinhead with a skinful

But the criticisms are, for the most part, ritualistic while the real venom is being reserved for Mr Hague and his team.

Apart form Mr Kennedy's "headcase" jibe, MP Nigel Jones has branded him an "utter plonker" and a "skinhead with a skinful" for his claims to have drunk 14 pints a day as a teenager.

But there is a problem with Mr Kennedy's strategy - many of the Lib Dems policies may actively turn off traditional Tory voters.

The high-tax manifesto pledge is unlikely to appeal to supporters of a party which has historically claimed to be the party of low taxation - although senior Lib Dems would argue the point.

And a number of decisions taken by the conference in its first couple of days are also likely to alienate Tories and see Mr Kennedy attacked by some sections of the media.

First there was the move, supported by Mr Kennedy, to give gay partnerships legal recognition.

That will undoubtedly be written up as "Kennedy to back gay marriages" and, despite the claimed new inclusiveness of the Tory party, is unlikely to go down well with disillusioned Tories.

Liberal minded Tories

Secondly there was the decision to strip the Queen of her role as head of the Church of England - or any other religious group.

That too is likely to get Mr Kennedy some negative press and could spook flag-waving Tories.

Mr Kennedy is clearly hoping that there are enough liberal minded, disillusioned former Tory voters who will not be outraged by such policies.

Meanwhile, he continues to have a pretty good conference. There have been no serious criticisms of his leadership, the direction in which he is taking the party or his policies.

On Tuesday he will undoubtedly win overwhelming support from the conference for his election manifesto.

And he is working long into the night on an end-of-conference speech which aides confidently predict will further consolidate his position and send delegates into the election with a real spring in their steps.

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See also:

18 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy calls for fuel tax cap
18 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Lib Dems back gay legal rights
18 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Dholakia attacks Tories on race
18 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Booze: Hague 'an utter plonker'
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