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Wednesday, 9 August, 2000, 08:18 GMT 09:18 UK
Charles Kennedy: 'A slow-burn start'
Charles Kennedy
Kennedy: 'Can do better and hopefully will.'
By BBC political correspondent Carolyn Quinn

A year ago when Charles Kennedy won the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, he started his acceptance speech with these words: "From now on, it's downhill all the way."

He was joking, of course, but there was a certain trepidation in the party about this man - so different from Paddy Ashdown who had pulled the party up from its lows of the late '80s.

Charles is like the David Gower of politics

Lord McNally
Liberal Democrat Peer
Mr Kennedy was much more of a known entity than Ashdown when he became leader. The expectation was that he would take less time to establish himself.

But early performances at prime minister's question times (PMQs) were shaky and hesitant.

Critics said Mr Kennedy was far too wordy and that he appeared to simply butter up the government.

Looking back on his first 12 months in office, Mr Kennedy admits to what he calls a "slow-burn start".

'A marathon, not a sprint'

"My mantra in the office," he says, "when colleagues are frustrated about not getting the headline we wanted or the hit on the news bulletin or the question at PMQs wasn't as tight as it could or should have been, is: 'look, this is a marathon, not a sprint'.

"My view of the 12 months is, this far round the track, not too bad but undoubtedly can do better and hopefully will."

After that slow start, it was a spectacular win in the Romsey by-election in May which proved a turning point for Mr Kennedy and his party.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats traded insults - they even had a battle in the centre of town, their wooden placards clashing as their two leaders delivered separate speeches.

Sandra Gidley
Gidley: Lib Deb local girl
Charles Kennedy and William Hague came toe-to-toe over the issues of law-and-order and asylum seekers.

The Lib Dems came out on top after a rash of anti-Tory tactical voting, and Lib Dem local woman Sandra Gidley became the MP for Romsey.

The Labour hierarchy, no great fans of Mr Kennedy, were impressed. The prime minister's spokesman, Alastair Campbell, is understood to have described Mr Kennedy's handling of the campaign as "brilliant".

Which is more than can be said for the general course of Lib/Lab relations over the year. The joint cabinet committee, viewed by pro-Labour Liberal Democrats as a coup for Paddy Ashdown, has met only twice under Mr Kennedy.

Divide over voting reform

The agendas have been flimsy - it seems that both sides are happy for it to wither on the vine. The prickly issue of voting reform has proved to be a key stumbling block.

Labour has effectively ruled out the adoption of the radical plan put forward by Lord Jenkins, although it is expected to stick to its manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on voting reform.

Mr Kennedy says he expects Labour to honour its pledge but he strenuously denies any suggestion of a pre-election pact between himself and the prime minister to introduce the lesser form of proportional representation - the Alternative Vote system.

It is for Labour, he says, to resolve its own internal argument on voting reform before any agreements can be reached.

Next month, to coincide with the party conference, Mr Kennedy will publish a book outlining his thoughts on where the party should go and on which policy areas it should concentrate.

These are: environmental matters; more libertarian issues like freedom of information; more pressure on the government to spend on public services.

Plenty more to do

But the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord McNally, believes it will take more than that for the party to make real gains.

Mr Kennedy, he believes, still has work to do on his form.

"Charles," he says, "is like the David Gower of politics - he has all the strokes to play a magnificent innings but the only concern is that, like David Gower, his attention wandered and he would get out before he made the century.

"Charles has got to use the immense talents that he has got in a more grinding, applied way than is probably his natural tendency."

The polls at the moment show little change under Charles Kennedy.

It will only really be at the election that a true picture emerges of his party's influence. The big question remaining is whether it is possible for the Liberal Democrats to do any better than their 46-seat high in 1997.

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See also:

10 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Kennedy: 'Campaign against Tories'
09 Mar 00 | UK Politics
On the spot: Charles Kennedy
26 Sep 99 | UK Politics
Kennedy makes his mark
09 Aug 99 | UK Politics
Kennedy's next challenge
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