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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 September, 2004, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Serious attacks on the Lib Dems
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

If there is one over-riding theme at this year's Liberal Democrat conference then it is that the party has gone all serious.

Charles Kennedy
Are the Lib Dems going all serious?
And if there is one line of attack being adopted by Charles Kennedy's political enemies on both sides of him, it is that he faces both ways.

The first is easily dealt with. It is true. And party bosses are gleefully putting their hands up and declaring themselves guilty.

The second invites a response along the lines of: "What is wrong with that as long as the two faces don't contradict each other?"

Is not one of the tricks of modern politics - so successfully displayed by New Labour - to appear acceptable to those of all political shades, excluding the more exotic ideological extremes?

Mature party

As far as presenting a serious new image is concerned, even the clear internal divisions over issues like allowing the incursion of the market into public services are being spun as a positive rather than a negative.

Frontbencher David Laws' near-infamous Orange Book which proposes these policies proves, it is claimed, that this is a mature party which, unlike the others, can endure and even be strengthened by debate.

If you can't ride two horses at the same time, what are you doing in the circus
Harold Wilson's advice from a backbencher
It also allows the characteristically laid-back Mr Kennedy to display a bit of mettle by insisting that, happy though he is with this debate, he will brook no challenges to his settled policy.

These alternatives have been examined in the spirit of free exchange of ideas, and rejected.

But then we move seamlessly into what some of the sceptics believe is the two-faced nature of current Lib Demery.

Because, even as Mr Kennedy dismisses the Orange Book proposals, he invariably adds they are, none the less, ides which may have to be revisited at some unspecified time in the future.

Political tactic

In other words, claim the cynics, he is not prepared to finally close the door on them in case they may appeal to those voters who might find them attractive.

Whether this is a blatant example of two facedness, or a sensible political tactic not to needlessly alienate potential supporters is probably in the eye of the beholder.

It would certainly prove damaging to the Liberal Democrats if it could be shown they were pushing entirely contradictory policies.

But Mr Kennedy may be able to claim with some justification that he is simply emphasising different aspects of party policy to appeal to different audiences - that is, behaving like every other politician in the land.

As Harold Wilson was once told by a backbencher: "If you can't ride two horses at the same time, what are you doing in the circus."

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