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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Fighting talk from buoyant Lib Dems

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter, in Brighton

It was always going to be a good week for the Liberal Democrats.

Buoyed by Brent East, lifted by Labour's troubles and ready to revel in Iain Duncan Smith's woes, their trip to the seaside could hardly go wrong.

Charles Kennedy
Kennedy on the conference platform
And it didn't. If anything, it was better than expected. There was a new buzz of excitement in the conference hall and fringe meetings.

The debate was no longer about whether the Lib Dems could build on their electoral success, but how they were going to do it.

There were none of the embarrassing votes which have hung over events in the past, and the week ended with one of leader Charles Kennedy's best, most strident, speeches.

He certainly couldn't be accused of a fudge. It was tough talk with some clear messages: any lingering suggestions of co-operation with Labour are well and truly over.


Charles Kennedy and his party are the ultimate bandwagon politicians
Chris, England

According to Kennedy, Tony Blair is a busted flush, while his government is increasingly despaired of and in some cases despised. Lib Dems in Labour heartlands like Newcastle and Sheffield are ready to seize control.

Meanwhile Iain Duncan Smith is an ex-party leader waiting to happen. His party is heading for third party status with the Lib Dems breathing down their necks in constituencies held by party top brass like Michael Howard and Theresa May.

"I wouldn't want to be in her shoes in Maidenhead," he said with a wry nod to Ms May's penchant for fancy footwear.

Indeed, such was the strength of Mr Kennedy's attack on his rivals, there was no need to paraphrase. He said it himself: "We're coming to get you."

Last year he had suggested that the Lib Dems could conceivably move ahead of the Tories. This year he went further: "We are overtaking the Conservatives - be in no doubt, we are the only credible challenge to the government."

It is bold talk. But the Lib Dem leader clearly feels that his party is genuinely on the cusp of something big. "A great moment of opportunity is opening up for us."

Such was the strength of Mr Kennedy's attack on his rivals, there was no need to paraphrase. He said it himself: "We're coming to get you."
His party offers something new, he said, with trust in the government plummeting.

It could almost have been a speech spoken by a fresh-faced Tony Blair in 1995.

Time and space

So does it all add up? Certainly there was a spring in the step of many at the conference: a sense that Something Is Happening.

But there is also a feeling among some Liberal Democrats that they need a bit of time and space to get their heads round the concept.

There are still tensions in the party over the "left or right?" debate which Mr Kennedy is keen to quash
While entirely convinced that their path is the right path, it's almost as though some can't really believe the hype.

There are still tensions in the party over the "left or right?" debate which Mr Kennedy is keen to quash. Like it or not, that discussion dominated many a fringe meeting.

But in his repeated use of the word "liberal" during his speech, Mr Kennedy acknowledged that his party is seen by many as to the left of Labour.

And even some in his party ask that if they're not left or right, what are they? "Third way?" suggested someone wryly during a discussion about the debate this week.

That debate will continue - and you can be sure to hear much from the Tories in particular about where they think the Lib Dems stand when the conference bandwagon rolls into Blackpool in just over a week.

But, in a sense, that is partly why the Lib Dems are so buoyant. Both Labour and the Tories have been keeping an eagle eye on events in Blackpool and have been speedy in attempting to rubbish policies and speeches.

'Up for grabs'

The Sun has turned its fire on "loony left" Mr Kennedy with a "nightmare on Kinnock street"-style spread.

All of which, if you're a Lib Dem, means you are being taken seriously.

Indeed, what the party kept telling itself this week was "it's all up for grabs now".

Lib Dems see the chance to capitalise on disillusion with both the Tories and Labour.

They really believe they have a genuine opportunity to take the leap from third party pretenders to a powerful force alongside Labour and the Tories.

It is fighting talk, and there is really is no going back. Mr Kennedy has set out his stall - now he needs the results to back it up.


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