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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 March, 2005, 16:01 GMT
Kennedy's difficult balancing act
Analysis
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News Website

Charles Kennedy wrapped up the Liberal Democrats' spring conference with a typically low-key, personal speech.

He urged delegates to go out and fight for the party's values at the forthcoming general election.

His political mentor, the late Roy Jenkins, would have loved to have been involved in the coming campaign, he said.

Charles Kennedy
Iraq is not voters' top priority, Lib Dem polling shows

And Mr Kennedy suggested his wife, Sarah, who is expecting their first child in April, was a "great asset to the party".

It was not eve-of-battle stuff - but Mr Kennedy has never been a rabble rouser.

Careful calculation and incremental progress - rather than grand talk about the realignment of British politics - are his hallmarks.

"Go back to your constituencies and prepare to do quite well" could be his battle cry.

No one in the party is expecting Mr Kennedy to walk through the doors of number 10 on 6 May (the day after the likely election date) or even to overtake, at this attempt, the Tories.

What they are expecting, as election chief Lord Razzall put it, is to achieve "the best Liberal Democrat result in 95 years".

The party's average opinion poll rating in February was 19.8% - 7% higher than at the start of the 2001 general election campaign.

Historically, the party has picked up as much as 6% in extra support as polling day approaches, on the back of greater-than-normal media exposure.

The danger is that, in attempting to appeal to all, his party will come to be seen as opportunists

There was much talk this weekend about what will happen to the campaign when Mrs Kennedy goes into labour.

But the prospect of proud new father Charles taking a spot of paternity leave will surely be worth more in positive headlines than a few more days on the battlebus.

The bigger concern for the party must be the precarious balancing act Mr Kennedy is attempting to strike between wooing Labour voters and targeting Conservatives ones - while keeping his core support happy.

The Lib Dems stand the best chance of winning in seats where they are second to the Tories.

But their strategy is to target disaffected Labour voters, hoping to pick up enough protest votes to steal the seats, including those of several big Tory beasts.

'Flip-flopping'

Their new slogan unveiled at Harrogate, "The real alternative" - together with policies such as a 50% top tax rate, closer ties with Europe, opposition to the Iraq war - are designed to push the message that they - and not the Tories - are the serious and credible alternative to Labour.

And Mr Kennedy did not hold back in his attack on the Tories in his Saturday speech, accusing them of "flip-flopping" on all the big issues of recent times, from ID cards to tuition fees.

But there wasn't much mention of his party's enthusiasm for Europe - a potential turn-off for many Tory voters.

And he is unlikely to make as much as might be expected of his opposition to the Iraq war, seen by some on the left as his chief selling point.

Hung parliament

The party's private polling tells them it is not at the top of voters' priority list.

He will instead use the war as a symbol of a wider breakdown in trust in Tony Blair and concentrate on more bread and butter issues such as health, education and pensions.

The danger is that, in attempting to appeal to all, his party will come to be seen as opportunists, saying one thing to Labour voters and another to Tories.

"How much longer can you continue to play both ends off against the each other?," one reporter asked elections chief Lord Rennard in a briefing on Saturday morning.

Charles and Sarah Kennedy
Charles Kennedy says his wife is a big assett for the Liberal Democrats

Lord Rennard said its policies on univesity tuition fees, free care for the elderly and replacing council tax with a local income tax really did appeal to all.

Asked if he thought 20 extra seats was a realistic target, he said: "I think we could do rather better than that."

Mr Kennedy has ruled out any kind of parliamentary pact with Labour or the Conservatives, after the election.

So the more seats the party gains - the better its chance of holding the balance of power in the event of a hung parliament.

And that's one balancing act Mr Kennedy would be more than happy to take on.


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