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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 March, 2004, 15:30 GMT
Kennedy fights to focus on issues
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy looked like he was still recovering
Charles Kennedy must sometimes feel he is living through his own version of Groundhog day.

Each time he faces a big conference speech, he has to refocus his policy agenda after watching the other parties cannibalise it for their own manifestos.

And, more worryingly for his personal position, he appears to face another outbreak of speculation about his health and leadership future.

So his job at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Southport was not only to map out a strong, individual platform for his party - he also needed to dispel rumours about his health and his leadership.

He was probably more successful on the first than on the second.

On policies and the looming local, Euro, London mayoral and then general elections, he went to the heart of issues currently dominating politics.

Firstly, on the economy, he attempted to widen his policy on reducing waste and cutting Whitehall spending which has now been appropriated in different form by both Labour and the Tories.

Loss of faith

He did that by suggesting he would cut "unnecessary and wasteful" defence spending, abolish the children's trust fund and plans for national identity cards, and put the money instead into front-line services.

Similarly, his programme for fairness in taxation would replace the council tax with a local income tax - that is already the next policy many Lib Dems fear Tony Blair is going to cannibalise.

Secondly, he zeroed in on the core issue of trust suggesting, with some support from the polls, that voters have lost faith in the trustworthiness of the other two party leaders.

People would like to believe that, when a politician said something, they actually meant it, he said.

His "I tell it like it is" approach has indeed won him support amongst voters, but this time he also needed to reassure his own troops about both his political judgements and his leadership abilities and commitment.

There had been some speculation that Mr Kennedy had started to question his policy on the war on Iraq, for example.

But he showed no sign of that, insisting the tough decision to oppose it and the later decision not to take part in the Butler inquiry had been vindicated by events.

It was a speech which attempted to appeal to disaffected Labour voters but which focused particularly on the Tories under Michael Howard.

Mr Kennedy knows that any significant Tory revival could do his electoral opportunities real damage.

'Up for it'

Lastly, the issue that has dogged him since before the last election - his health.

After he failed to appear in the Commons for the Budget debate and question time before it, there has been renewed gossip over his personal lifestyle and physical fitness.

He has always brushed them aside and, this time, put it down to a violent stomach bug.

He certainly looked like a man still recovering from a bout of ill health - sweating, taking frequent drinks of water and sounding hoarse.

Despite rumours, he did not address the issue head on, except to tell his conference that, when it came to the big political battles ahead, he was "up for it" .

And Mr Kennedy knows he still has a big battle ahead.

The sort of rumours dogging him are all too easy to start up but horribly difficult to dispel.

In the end, he knows he will be judged by his actions and his party's fortunes - notably in the June local elections.

His speech in Southport should at least have seen him through until then.

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