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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 March, 2004, 14:34 GMT
Leader triumphs from sickbed
by Jackie Storer
BBC News Online political staff

With his croaky, Barry White-style voice and wan colouring, Charles Kennedy did the best he could to give the impression of a strong leader and well man.

He had a tough task - speculation about his health has been rife since a "violent stomach bug" forced him to bow out of last week's Budget statement.

From the moment he strode on stage to be greeted by Liberal Democrat president Lord Dholakia, Mr Kennedy knew all eyes would watch for a twitch, a shake, a loss of concentration or a stumble of some sort.

Charles Kennedy at the party conference in 2004
Kennedy received several standing ovations
His audience knew this too - and he was warmly welcomed with rousing applause, a few laughs and a few cheers as ploughed deliberately through his speech.

It seemed as though the listening party members - a particularly loyal bunch who almost filled the auditorium at Southport Theatre - were willing him on.

Mr Kennedy, who wore a Lib Dem yellow tie, blue shirt and dark suit, did his best to please despite having to mop his continually sweaty brow with a ready white hanky.

'Shameful'

He was clapped as he outlined what he saw as "opportunist" Tory leader Michael Howard's "four gaffes".

And he received chuckles when he mused whether psychologists would consider the need "to open a file" on his state of mind.

Everybody every now and again is going to get a stomach bug - he's a human being, the same as the rest of us
Iain Donaldson
Manchester city councillor

But it was his view that Mr Howard had been "utterly shameful" in the wake of the Madrid bombing by describing those Spaniards who had not supported the Iraq war as "demonstrating moral cowardice" which ignited the audience.

Strong applause also came for Mr Kennedy's insistence that any future "doctrine of pre-emptive" strikes to sort out nations which constitute a threat, should be "endorsed by the UN".

Ambitious

For his efforts, he was rewarded with an instant standing ovation which lasted several minutes.

He looked relieved as he shook Lord Dholakia's hands a couple of times and waved to delegates at the back of the hall.

He's very honest, very open and very in tune with what the people are looking for
Denise Capstick
Nurse

But he certainly impressed one activist, Iain Donaldson, a 39-year-old Manchester city councillor and researcher.

"It was an excellent speech and it finally shows the real ambition of this party," he said.

"The message he gave is the one we are giving in the council chamber and that is that Liberal Democrats are honest, we're open and we're ready for government."

While Mr Donaldson said it was clear his leader was not well, he insisted: "Everybody every now and again is going to get a stomach bug - he's a human being, the same as the rest of us."

'Charismatic'

Gordon King, 45, a human resources adviser for the National Trust, said he thought Mr Kennedy's speech was "challenging".

"I think he has shown very strong leadership in the last year and that has resulted in the party being in a very strong position.

"I think he's ill - no doubt about that. I think he's not yet recovered, but we look forward to his good health as soon as possible," added Mr King from Westbury, Wiltshire.

You do look like that after a bad stomach bug - he's lost some weight
Maureen de Beer
Retired lecturer

Senior nurse Denise Capstick, 38, from North Southwick and Bermondsey, said: "It was a very good speech. He's very honest, very open and very in tune with what the people are looking for.

"I think he's a very strong leader - he's got the personality, the charisma and basically says what he thinks, which I think is what politicians should do."

Ms Capstick said she had known Mr Kennedy for a while and he had "certainly been very unwell".

"I was talking to his wife Sarah - she says he's a heck of a lot better than he was a couple of weeks ago.

"He's certainly not looking in the best of health, but he's doing a very good job."

'Strong minded'

Maureen de Beer, a 74-year-old retired lecturer from Harrow, said Mr Kennedy's speech had highlighted the differences between the major political parties.

"I think it gave us a very nice springboard to go and campaign in the elections in June."

Mrs de Beer said her leader was "not looking terribly well".

"You do look like that after a bad stomach bug - he's lost some weight."

I think it says something about us that the only damaging slant is that the leader had a dicky tummy for a couple of days
Tim Farron
Prospective MP

Tim Farron, 33, a parliamentary candidate for the Tory seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale, said Mr Kennedy had hit the right note by centring in on trust and fairness.

"Whatever people think of our stance on Iraq, the fact we took one and stuck to it has won us fans across the spectrum," said the college registrar.

"People are bound to make comparisons between the two opposition parties.

"You have got shallow and shameless vacillation from Michael Howard and Charles sticking to his own mind on a variety of issues."

Mr Farron said his leader's health was a "nothing story".

"He's getting over it and I think it says something about us that the only damaging slant is that the leader had a dicky tummy for a couple of days."




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Shaun Ley
"Suddenly Charles Kennedy's speech has taken on a new importance"



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