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EDITIONS
Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Kennedy sounds election battle cry
The speech was well-received by delegates

Charles Kennedy has delivered a rallying call to his troops, predicting a straight general election fight between them and the government.

In one of the most upbeat speeches to a Lib Dem conference for years, he effectively wrote off the Tories - branding them "redundant and irrelevant".

The Conservative Party's lost its head. The Labour Government's lost its way. We can show there's a better way - our way

Charles Kennedy
And he said it was his party that was now in tune with the British people and was acting as the real opposition to the government.

He claimed Labour would run away from holding a referendum on the euro before the next election.

He also renewed his party's much-frustrated demand for a new system of proportional voting in general elections.

And he repeated his insistence that there should be no military action against Iraq except as a last resort and, only then, after the full backing of the UN and the Commons.

Target Tories

He attacked the government for losing its way and, all too often, acting in what he said was an illiberal manner.

Delegates packed the hall for the speech
And he even hinted he was determined to put an end to the internal sniping over his leadership style with a major reshuffle of his top team.

But in a 45-minute speech which clearly delighted his audience, he concentrated his fire on the party he wants to replace - the Tories.

And he identified the public services as the key battleground in the run up to the next election.

"This is an exciting time in politics. It's what some call the new politics," he said.

"The Conservative Party's lost its head. The Labour Government's lost its way. We can show there's a better way - our way.

"People are no longer interested in the old ideas of left and right.

"In this era of new politics we can set out our stall with conviction in the knowledge that the argument is steadily moving our way."

Growing influence

Highlighting the crucial issue of spending on the public services, he said: "Increasingly a defining debate for the next general election is between the government and ourselves.

The Tories are 'jaded', says Kennedy
"And the issue is this: do you spend the money wastefully from the centre - or effectively through local people?

"The so-called official opposition can't engage in that argument. The Liberal Democrat opposition is already at the heart of that argument.

"That's what people will be talking about as we move towards the next election. The debate has moved on from funding to delivery.

"Steadily, month by month, our influence and credibility is growing.

"The attraction isn't simply that we're not Labour or the Tories. Our image is becoming ever stronger, our role ever more clear."

Quicken pace

In a section which came close to echoing David Steel's famous call to delegates to prepare for government, he said politics was up for grabs.

Saddam Hussein
Kennedy says the UN should tackle Saddam
"I've always said as your leader that the process of building up the Liberal Democrats in British politics is much more a marathon than a sprint. But now is the time to quicken the pace.

"British politics is up for grabs in a way it has not been for a hundred years.

"The prize is very great. There's no law which says when the Conservative Party is down it must come back up.

"And there's certainly no law which says the Liberal Democrats need forever remain third amongst Britain's political parties. "

It was the speech his faithful had wanted to hear. It set their sights firmly on the goal of becoming the official opposition and as contenders for government.

He even showed he was ready to take on the irritant of the perpetual whispering over his leadership style.

His reference to a reshuffle being "a thought" could not have been more pointed or deliberate, even though it was disguised as a joke.

It was a bold speech which sought to underpin his leadership and inspire his party with a vision of real power.

But he and his delegates know they have been here before - about once every ten years.

And, as Mr Kennedy glad-handed it amongst the delegates to the tune of Stephen Gatley's "New Beginning", the question hovering on everyone's lips was whether this time it is for real.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mark Mardell
"The Liberal Democrats still have a big mountain to climb"

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See also:

25 Sep 02 | Politics
23 Sep 02 | Politics
22 Sep 02 | Politics
26 Sep 02 | Politics
26 Sep 02 | Politics
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