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banner Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Kennedy urges caution in terror war
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy addressing his party conference
Kennedy will claim to be the real opposition
Nick Assinder

Charles Kennedy is closing the Liberal Democrat conference with a fresh call for caution in the West's response to the US terror attacks.

The Lib Dem leader will offer his unswerving support for action to tackle international terrorism.

But he is expected to repeat his demand that retaliation should be driven by resolve to root out the evil of terrorism, rather than the desire for revenge.

And he is likely to again insist that the British government does not offer President Bush a "blank cheque".

Mr Kennedy, who was ready to re-write his speech at the eleventh hour if events dictated, recognises he will not be able to give the address he had planned.

More than half of his end-of-conference speech will be concerned with the international crisis.

Party of opposition

But he will also want to underline his message that, in the wake of the last election result, his party is now the effective party of opposition.

He will stress the importance of hammering home the party's commitment to public services.

And he will add: "That message will be absolutely vital as we develop our role as the effective opposition.

"But that message will not be enough on its own.

"Our challenge is to be more vocal, more competent, more authoritative, more imaginative and quicker on our feet than either of the other parties."

He will also look back to his personal general election campaign, widely seen as the most effective of all the party leaders.

"I drew a few personal lessons from the election," he will say.

"Be straight with people, address people's hopes not their fears, address their aspirations not just attitudes, talk about solutions not just problems.

"Do not get dragged into left versus right arguments but stay ahead of the other parties."

Honest leader

This is the speech he had wanted to deliver - to attempt to position the Lib Dems as the real opposition and to urge his troops to fill that role with a new, more authoritative approach to politics.

He will drive home his general election message that only the Lib Dems can be truly trusted to protect and boost the nation's public services.

And he will again attempt to portray himself as a straightforward, honest leader in an echo of the election campaign's slogan that "what you see is what you get."

But with the international crisis hanging over all political debate he was spending much of the night crafting the part of his speech which will deal with the attack on the US.

His party was given a taste of what he might say in a hastily constructed party political broadcast on Wednesday night.

He repeated his claim that the international coalition should not be talking about going to "war" on a country or faith, but of removing a group of evil international terrorists.

Not about revenge

He said: "There may well have to be a military response. But that response should be based on international law and clear intelligence.

"The point of all of this is the defeat of terrorism; it's not about revenge."

The crisis has dominated all the debates at this conference just as it has dominated the entire political agenda since 11 September.

There have been discussions over women only shortlists for parliamentary candidates and a divisive row over the role of the private sector in public services.

But the bigger controversy over which direction the party should now follow - either to the left to sweep up disillusioned Labour voters, or to the right to appeal to former Tory supporters - has not been joined.

There is little appetite for such discussions in the wake of the terror attacks on Washington and New York.

And the final conference day will lack its usual celebratory air - even though the party has more to celebrate now that at any time for decades, thanks to its general election successes.

There will be debates on football franchising - covering the controversial move of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes - student finance and NHS staffing and the delivery of a better health service.

But aides stressed that the official close of the conference would be a low key affair.

The BBC's Nick Robinson
reports at the close of Charles Kennedy's speech
See also:

26 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Claire Rayner film dropped by Lib Dems
26 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Lib Dems consider women-only lists
09 Jun 01 | Talking Point
Liberal Democrats - a new opposition?
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