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Sunday, 18 March, 2001, 14:19 GMT
Kennedy tells party to get ready
Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy was in upbeat form
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder in Torquay.

Charles Kennedy has ended the Liberal Democrat's spring conference with a rallying call to the party faithful to prepare for an election on 3 May.

He told delegates in Torquay: "Do not get over obsessed with the election date - get ready for the starting pistol possibly being fired within one working week from today. It could be as imminent as that."

He continued: "Get ready for the fray. Let's go out and crusade for our liberty up and down the country, then electoral riches will come our way - give 'em hell Harry."

One thing that party members will be able to tell to the public is that the Lib Dems have confirmed their plan to put a penny on the basic rate of income tax.

The extra revenue, which the party want to ringfence for education would cost the average family 2 a week, according to Treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor.

Upbeat

The end of the conference was a typically relaxed, upbeat address which delighted Mr Kennedy's troops and sent them away from Torquay prepared for an imminent election campaign.

He has urged the government to make no decision yet on a 3 May election because of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

But he believes Tony Blair is still planning to go to the country on that date.

And environment minister Michael Meacher stoked up the speculation by saying it would send out all the wrong signals to cancel the local elections on that day.

Britain still open

Ministers fear that, despite public concern about a 3 May poll, to cancel it would actually make matters worse by suggesting to the rest of the world that Britain was closed for business.

Tourism would be further hit and British meat exports would be damaged.

Mr Kennedy also insisted that unless Tony Blair gave a manifesto commitment to holding a referendum on introducing PR voting for Westminster he would end any co-operation with New Labour.

"If they think, for their own internal reasons, they cannot do it, then all bets are off," he said.

He also urged his activists not to be drawn into constantly answering questions about the other parties and their relationship with them.

"My job has to be as your principle salesman. My one gut instinct is, if you are trying to sell Coca Cola you are not going to do it if you spend all your time talking about Pepsi," he said.

He struck just the right tone for his delegates at the end of their pre-election conference.

The final rally was peppered with comedy moments and banter from education spokesman Phil Willis - who came on like an old time preacher with call and "Hallelujah" response - and MP Jenny Tonge.

Jenny Tonge
Dr Tonge did not back Mr Kennedy
She chaired the event in highly-individual style and introduced Mr Kennedy saying: "I did not back him for leader but, oh I am so glad he has won."

Mr Kennedy returned the favour, declaring she had once again showed a lack of political judgement.

That brought some sharp intakes of breath from the audience and saw Ms Tonge warning him she had a button to turn off his microphone.

It was sharp, but it was all taken in good spirit by an audience determined to, in Mr Kennedy's own words, turn the event into a love in.

And they may all have gone away with smiles on their faces, but few have any illusions that they will have a real fight on their hands to live up to their ambition of increasing their votes and their number of MPs at the next election - whenever it comes.

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See also:

17 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Kennedy's 'laid back' liberalism
16 Mar 01 | Talking Politics
Fight like we could win
21 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Kennedy - 'No pacts, no deals'
28 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Electorate may vote tactically - Kennedy
11 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Lib Dems target university fees
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