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banner Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Kennedy presents a new face
Charles Kennedy
Kennedy looked beyond the conference
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

It was a different Charles Kennedy who ended this year's Liberal Democrat conference to the rather unsure one who stood before it a year ago.

Then, in Harrogate, there was still a bit too much of the wisecracking, self-mocking "chatshow Charlie".

His speech was too long, conversational and - for many - lacking in the sort of stature needed for a political leader.

This year was something else. Lib Dem delegates were presented with a man determined to prove himself a serious, weighty politician with passionately-held beliefs and real depth.

The message - in one of the shortest leadership speeches in recent memory - was simple. And it was directed well beyond the Bournemouth conference centre.

He told both disaffected Tories and disillusioned Labour voters that he and his party presented a real alternative.

Confident and secure

"We must go into the next election and tell people about our message of freedom, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the disaster of William Hague's party.

"The difference between the Liberal Democrats and the disappointment that Labour has become."

He appeared confident and secure, despite bags under his eyes which looked as if they had been packed for an ocean voyage - the result of tiredness.

And he succeeded in dispelling many of the remaining doubts among delegates about his leadership style.

"William Hague is not the serious leader of a serious political party," he said. What he didn't say, but clearly meant, was "but I am."

And he concentrated his fire, as expected, on the Tories with a withering assault on Mr Hague and other shadow ministers.

He spent roughly twice as much time laying into the opposition than criticising Labour.

In key sections, when he attempted to map out his political vision he even attempted to look cross - not something that comes naturally to him.

He also predicted his party would make significant new gains at the next election, declaring: "1997 was a staging post, it wasn't a high-water mark."

People's priorities

He knows that to achieve that breakthrough - and the balance of power tantalisingly offered to him by some opinion polls - he has to appeal to voters from both the other parties, albeit primarily Tories.

So his speech used language that could have come from both those parties.

He spoke Conservative-sounding words about the government doing less and giving people more power to decide how their taxes are spent.

But he switched to New Labour-speak to talk about his priorities being "the people's priorities".

And it remains to be seen how many Tories will warm to his "squeeze the rich" tax plans and conference decisions to give legal recognition to gay partnerships and to remove the Queen as head of the Church of England.

He attempted, once again, to play down the comparisons with Labour, insisting his policies were "not left of Labour, not right of Labour, we are ahead of Labour".

There were the occasional glimpses of the old Charlie. After being given a rousing introduction to the platform by party president Lord Navnit Dholakia, for example, he ad-libbed: "I would say quit when you are in front after that."

It had an echo of the "it's all downhill from here on" he had a bad habit of declaring last year.

Fighting for every vote

But, overall, he maintained the serious front and ended the conference in much the way it started - on a genuine high-note.

After the spate of favourable opinion polls he could have been tempted to claim too much for his party.

But, while maintaining an upbeat mood, he carefully avoided repeating David Steel's infamous: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" in 1981.

There was, in any case, always a suspicion that the old Liberals never really wanted to get into government.

That is most certainly not the case with the Lib Dems and Mr Kennedy is determined to see his troops fighting for every vote at the next election.

His hopes will now be pinned not only on continued success for his party, but also continued disillusion with the other main parties.

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See also:

18 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy targets Tories
06 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Lib Dem pre-manifesto at a glance
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