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banner Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Lib Dems' hostage to fortune

Lib Dems told they could double their Commons presence
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

It was the Lib Dems' election organiser, Lord Razzall, who summed up the mood of the party conference at the end of its third day.

"Order the champagne for the day after the election. We will be celebrating winning more seats and more votes than in 1997," he told the conference.

For the first time, a senior party figure was voicing from the conference platform what many of the delegates had been whispering amongst themselves - that they could end up with around 100 Commons seats at the next election.

His words had echoes of former leader David Steel's famous speech in 1981 in which he told conference delegates: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government."

And it is what is known as a hostage to fortune.

There is no doubt that the Lib Dems have plenty to feel pleased about this year.

Three opinion polls in a row have shown them taking votes from both the other major parties and suggesting they could hold the balance of power after the next election.

There have been no great rebellions over party policy or its loose, and ever-weakening, relationship with the Labour government.

On their way

The controversial, tax-increasing election manifesto won the expected overwhelming backing of the party.

And Charles Kennedy has strengthened his leadership and control over his party.

The conference has attempted to distance itself from Labour while concentrating its fire on the Tories - its most fertile hunting ground at the election.

And there is a widespread feeling that this time, just maybe, they are really on their way. And Lord Razzall put it all into words.

After what some saw as his rash prediction of taking more than 50 seats from the Tories, he continued: "The evidence is there. I am not just talking about the opinion polls. No, I am talking about the hard evidence of real votes cast by real people in real elections."

Just a year ago, home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes was warning that the Lib Dems could lose six of the seats they took from the Tories in 1997.

But the party has gradually built up support, making significant gains in local elections and sensationally winning the Romsey by-election. The fuel crisis capped it all and has handed the party an unforeseen boost.

But what is worrying some more sober-minded delegates is that much of the party's current optimism is built on the petrol crisis and the government's perceived mishandling of it.

And they know that support gathered that way can disappear like snow off a ditch.

What Lord Razzall told them was that this was not the case - the advances were more deep seated and significant than that.

Now, if election organisers can't make claims like that, then no one can. But it is a prediction that will be tested over the coming months.

And it may yet come back to haunt Lord Razzall.

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See also:

18 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy targets Tories
17 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy starts conference on high note
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