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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Kennedy's new beginning?
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent in Bournemouth

Not since the heady days of the SDP, with its pledge to break the mould of politics, has a third-party leader offered his conference such a tantalising promise of power.

Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy was in confident mood
The Liberal Democrats' Charles Kennedy came to Bournemouth eager to send his troops into the looming general election battle armed with the belief they are on the way to government.

Forsaking some of the planned razzmatazz in recognition of the plight of hostage Ken Bigley, he entered through the packed hall to rousing music, greeting the delegates desperately wanting to hear how they are on the verge of something big.

And he gave them what they wanted. It may not have been the rabble rousing, barnstorming performance others are capable of.

But it was solid, serious and to the point.

Iraq

He told them the election was probably not more than 225 days away. "225 days left to choose between two essentially conservative parties and the real alternative which is the Liberal Democrats."

He pointedly refused to attack the two other party leaders by name, preferring to virtually write off the Tories as disconnected from voters, backward-looking and out of touch.

Labour, meanwhile, was untrustworthy, unaccountable and divisive.

Inevitably, he concentrated on the issue that has seen him and his party chiming with public opinion - Iraq.

He fell short of calling for the prime minister to resign, but he did again call on him to say whether he had given President Bush a guarantee of military support for war on Iraq, irrespective of any UN decision.

'Freedom, fairness and trust'

If Tony Blair continued to refuse to answer that question, the people could make a judgement at the general election, he said.

The speech was overwhelmingly an attempt by Mr Kennedy to tell his party, and more importantly the voters, what the Liberal Democrats stand for.

Once again he attempted to throw off charges of being either left-wing, right-wing, or both at the same time, insisting his party offered something different.

Voters, he said, were ready for that different party of "freedom, fairness and trust".

Even the most optimistic probably find it hard to believe that sensational breakthrough can come in the expected 2005 general election.

But there are plenty of the party's top brass and amongst its foot soldiers who are absolutely convinced the goal of government is finally within their grasp in the foreseeable future.

Flaky behaviour

Their annual conference has certainly seen the Liberal Democrats and Mr Kennedy making the most of their recent electoral successes.

There is always the fear that this party's rank and file can squander its advances with flamboyant conference motions, petty sniping at the leader or simply flaky behaviour.

That tendency has been waning of late, in any case. But this year, those determined to assault the party found it harder than before.

There were genuine questions over Mr Kennedy's spending plans - but they were answered with detailed costings.

There were claims the party was being gradually taken over by free marketeers, matched by alternative suggestions it had adopted leftish high-tax proposals.

Serious-looking

Hanging over all this was the suggestion the party unscrupulously offered different faces to different sets of electors.

Yet it is difficult to think of a time when the Lib Dem frontbenchers - serious-looking individuals every one - held such a command over their rank and file, normally notorious for their desire to prove their independence by defeating the leadership a few times at conference.

Similarly, the party's pre-manifesto document is designed to offer appealing, mature policies on issues like a local income tax, pensions, care for the elderly and crime.

And, as Mr Kennedy left through his cheering crowd, to a six-and-a-half minute standing ovation accompanied by Stephen Gately's "Time for a New Beginning", it was hard to escape the feeling that the delegates really believe it this time.

The wisest heads in the party, of course, still know that the task of transforming all this optimism into the delivery of power remains a major, even historic challenge.





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