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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Robinson's verdict: Lib Dem conference
By Nick Robinson
BBC political editor, in Blackpool

There will be no more rights for goldfish, no more porn for teenagers, no votes for prisoners.

Thus the Lib Dem spin doctors sought to depress journalistic expectations ahead of this conference.

Charles Kennedy

They knew that the media has long feasted on this party's eccentricities - the beards, the sandals and those, well, less than mainstream resolutions which are noted, filed and then reproduced come election time by the party's enemies.

The Lib Dems hunger to be taken seriously. They believe they deserve nothing less.

What's more their pollsters tell them that the C word - credibility - or rather the lack of it is the main obstacle between them and power.

So no more motions on goldfish. But the spin doctors forgot something. A warning offered up by the man who spun for Bill Clinton - if you don't feed the media beast it will go and find red meat for itself.

This week much of the media have dined on Charles Kennedy. The first course was served by a Lib Dem candidate who asked his leader why he'd had to spend the election defending him.

There was muttering, there was manoeuvring, there was not - yet - plotting to remove Charles Kennedy

The main course was dished up by party activists who rejected leadership ideas on Europe and on privatising the Royal Mail.

For afters a close friend and colleague offered his leader advice to start leading and stop merely chairing his party. Ham fistedly Mr Kennedy said he agreed.

There was muttering, there was manoeuvring, there was not - yet - plotting to remove him.

The muttering came from those who find Consensual Charlie somewhat underwhelming compared with the heady days of his predecessor, Pushy Paddy. The more laidback he is the more frustrated they become.

The manoeuvring is by the bright young men - and there's quite a few of them - who sense they might just come next.

The absence of plotting is because they all know that if Kennedy fell under the mythical Number 11 bus only one person would succeed. That's the populist Simon Hughes and few MPs beyond Mr Hughes himself want that.

Passion

Charles Kennedy's closing sales pitch for a "sensible, genuine, mature" leadership style could not hide the fact that he'd been forced to respond to those critics.

He wooed his party with a rare display of passion - accusing Tony Blair of playing politics with terrorism, making excuses for George Bush's failure to tackle climate change and for letting his personal pride claim lives in Iraq.

What he didn't do was stake out a clear position on what really divides this party - its domestic policies.

Mr Kennedy hints that he backs those who want a more free market position at the same time as reassuring activists that he won't allow there to be three conservative parties in Britain.

It's how he now handles that debate and whether he can perform again as he did in his conference speech which will determine whether the muttering and the manoeuvring which dominated this week ever turns into plotting.


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