Column One: Liberal Democrats lose their left wing on take-off

EARLY ARRIVALS at the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate were greeted by the sight of a bright yellow bubble car parked in prime position outside the conference hall. I have a vague memory that this appealing vehicle once featured in one of John Cleese's party political broadcasts for the Liberal Democrats, but even so it hardly seemed the most potent image for a party with a new driver at the wheel - cute, undoubtedly, but notoriously unstable when turning left or right.

Somebody else must have had their doubts too, because a little later this high-mileage hostage to fortune had disappeared - to be replaced by a local fire engine, turning out for the second false alarm of the day. Once again delegates frothed out of the hall en masse, speculating cheerfully about the interruption - some thought it had been caused by BBC equipment overheating; others identified it as more telling evidence of the party's slow march to power. Yes, they were big enough now to have their own bomb threats.

"We like to excite you at the Liberal Democrat conference," explained Charles Kennedy, as he sat down for his first press conference of the week.

Not too much, though. Just in case any of the journalists became over- stimulated by the arrival of the new leader, David Walter, the Liberal Democrats' director of media communication, first read out a long list of parish notices and timetable changes - forcing Mr Kennedy to maintain his expression of solemn purpose and resolve for longer than was truly comfortable. And if he had hoped that the second evacuation would be the last glitch of the opening day he had hoped in vain.

The session began well enough, with Mr Kennedy signalling that nothing could be taken for granted about the party's future co-operation with Labour. "I want us to underline distinctive policies" he said; opposition would be put "unequivocally", there was a "clear-cut choice for the country" between tax cuts and higher public spending. The first flush of exposure over, he looked confident and clear-minded. But, then, as he took questions from the floor, the Liberal Democrats began to fall apart.

The "o" in Democrats was the first to go, lurching slowly sideways, as if terminally depressed by the leader's announcement that "the general election campaign starts here". A few minutes later, as Mr Kennedy gravely dealt with a question on the party's attitude to the single currency, part of the bird's wing on the party logo fell off too.

Mr Kennedy pressed onwards, hoping to ride out the embarrassment. But then the other half dropped too. "That poor sod'll be flying in circles," observed a cameraman, presumably already calculating how quickly he could get the clip to It'll Be Alright On The Night.

Shortly after that, Mr Kennedy concluded his press conference and, unless he is a man of inhuman self-control, went off somewhere private to have his first leadership screaming fit.

Conference reports, page 6

Leading article,

Review, page 3