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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 September 2006, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Kennedy rebuffs leader handshake
Charles Kennedy arrives at the conference hall with his wife, and media scrum in tow
Charles Kennedy won two standing ovations for his speech

Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell has confirmed that Charles Kennedy refused to do a public handshake with him after his conference comeback speech.

Sir Menzies said he had discussed the choreography of Mr Kennedy's speech but the ex-leader had wanted to keep things as simple as possible.

"I don't regard it as a snub," he said, joking that he had shaken Mr Kennedy's hands many times in the past.

Earlier, Paddy Ashdown said ex-party leaders should "leave the stage".

Mr Kennedy's refusal will be seen as a sign of bitterness at being forced to quit as leader, but Mr Kennedy's aides insist that is not the case.

Perfect goodbye?

Mr Kennedy and Sir Menzies have reportedly held only one private meeting since the change of leadership in January.

During Mr Kennedy's speech, Sir Menzies sat in the front row and led the standing ovation but there was no handshake on the stage between the pair.

Lord Ashdown, who was succeeded by Mr Kennedy as leader in 1998, told BBC Radio Five Live: "I understand that Ming actually suggested to Charles that there should be a handshake etcetera but Charles decided he didn't want to do that."

He said he did not know Mr Kennedy's reasons for refusing.

On Mr Kennedy's speech, he said: "The perfect ex-leader's speech says goodbye to the party and doesn't take the spotlight off his successor.

"I think Charles Kennedy succeeded in doing that yesterday."

'No snub'

Some Lib Dems have suggested Mr Kennedy could return to the top job but that idea was dismissed by Lord Ashdown.

"You never quite say never in politics there are always exceptions and one of those exceptions is when you leave the stage, you leave the stage."

Mr Kennedy's spokeswoman said she did not know why Lord Ashdown was suggesting the offer of a handshake had been refused.

"We went ahead with the staging as discussed with the conference organisers," she said.

"I don't think there was any deliberate snub intended."

Loyalty vow

Mr Kennedy, who increased the number of Lib Dem MPs from 46 to 62 and vote share from 16% to 22% as leader, looked confident and relaxed in his first big speech since admitting a drink problem and quitting as party leader.

He said "the best is yet to come" for the party and insisted it could be a force for change in British politics.

And he insisted he had stuck to his promise to remain loyal to his successor.

"Ming Campbell knows that has been the case and you should know that is going to remain the case," he said.

Sir Menzies hailed the speech as "outstanding".

"He is a very accomplished speaker; you could see by the way he was received that there's great affection for him in the party," said Sir Menzies.

The Lib Dem leader has said he would welcome Mr Kennedy back to the front bench when he is ready to return.

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