Thursday, September 23, 1999 Published at 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Kennedy makes his mark
Charles Kennedy: Long-winded speech at the party conference
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder
Charles Kennedy's first speech as Liberal Democrat leader was a carefully crafted attempt to stamp his individual personality on the party and outline his own political philosophy.
But whether his leadership style will ultimately endear him to his party and the voters remains a huge open question.
When he stepped up to the lectern in the Harrogate conference centre, he adopted the most chummy, relaxed and conversational style ever to be attempted by a party leader in such a situation.
Most of his members seemed to love it - but, having only just elected him, there was no way they were going to give him anything other than a warm reception. But some believed the strategy badly backfired.
His delivered his keynote speech at a snail's pace - over running by around 15 minutes - and with little obvious passion.
His voice seldom rose over bar room level and he even spent much of his 51-minute performance with his hands in his pockets.
He could almost have been speaking to three or four people in his front room rather than a packed conference. He attempted some self- mockery at the start, with jokes about his numerous appearances on TV chat and game shows, which went down well with the delegates.
But some claimed his speech backed up criticisms levelled at him by frontbencher Simon Hughes, who sparked a conference storm by telling BBC News Online that Mr Kennedy had never been "a great policy promoter."
Delegates had to look long and hard for any new policies in the speech - which Mr Kennedy had been re-writing virtually right up until the moment he delivered it.
His aides admitted there was nothing particularly new in policy terms because they had only just completed a review and it was now up to Mr Kennedy to emphasise the aspects of that programme which he wanted to get across most.
That appeared to concentrate on the themes he had been pushing throughout the conference - that he would not be Tony Blair's poodle but would co-operate where they agreed, that he would be adamantly pro-European, and that he would never take the party down the "cul-de-sac" of leftism.
He even came very close to repeating the embarrassing gaffe of previous leader David Steel in the early 1980s when he told his conference to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for power."
Mr Kennedy said the gap between leadership of his party and government "doesn't seem so great any more." His advisors agreed the comments echoed Mr Steel's and that "he wants to concentrate minds on the fact that government might not be that far off."
In the election following David Steel's remarks, the Liberals lost seats - a scenario that many believe is bound to be repeated by the Lib Dems at the next election.
The speech was still overshadowed by the row over Mr Hughes' comments and the two men launched a public love-in to prove there was no animosity between them.
Introducing Mr Kennedy to the platform, Mr Hughes praised his new leader's qualities, said they were good friends and pledged that all in the party would work enthusiastically with him. Mr Kennedy also insisted he was untroubled by the comments.
Privately, however, he was said to be angry that the affair had dominated the week and it was being suggested he had persuaded his deputy Alan Beith to stay in his job to ensure Mr Hughes could not be elected to it.
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