Kennedy starts poverty crusade - after a good lunch at a London restaurant

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CHARLES KENNEDY launched his much-heralded crusade against poverty yesterday by doing what he knows best: tucking into a meal in an expensive Westminster restaurant, surrounded by the nation's media.

For a man who was supposed to be battling for social justice, snaps of him wolfing down his tomato and asparagus tart (pounds 5.95) were, perhaps, inopportune, but the new Liberal Democrat leader carried on regardless.

Watched by slightly embarrassed fellow diners, Mr Kennedy posed with his fragrant girlfriend, Sarah Gurling, as a happy couple who are, in true Liberal Democrat fashion, possibly, maybe, at some unspecified time, thinking about considering marriage.

In his first official photo-call Mr Kennedy, 39, chatted amiably enough to Miss Gurling, 29, over a "light summer lunch" at The Atrium restaurant.

It was the first time the pair have been photographed in public since the beginning of their relationship 18 months ago, but a party spokesman refused to speculate on the couple's future plans. "As and when they have discussions of that sort they will let everyone know," he said.

Quite why the photo-call had been arranged was a mystery, though the ever-loyal press officer made a brave stab at an explanation. "I think there's a lot of interest in Sarah and Charles and people were interested in seeing them in a relaxed environment," he said.

Miss Gurling, who is a PR officer with the Camelot National Lottery operator as well as being a Liberal Democrat activist, celebrated her boy-friend's win with party workers but has so far stayed out of the limelight. "We enjoyed a really good light lunch before the heavy responsibility to come," she said, proving that jokes should remain her boyfriend's forte.

The photo-call had strange echoes of a dinner at an Italian restaurant in London shared by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and his girlfriend, Sarah Macaulay.

By coincidence, the man who arranged that photo-call, Mr Brown's spin- doctor at the time, Charlie Whelan, was having lunch a few tables from Mr Kennedy and his partner. "I think these things are best planned discreetly," he said with a sardonic smile. As the lunch lasted just 13 minutes, with Miss Gurling's pounds 6.50 Caesar salad half-finished, and both parties sloping off soon after the snappers had their shots, it was clearly more of a stunt than a meal.

As if suddenly remembering that he had to live down his "Champagne Charlie" image, within an hour Mr Kennedy was touring a run-down council estate in north Brixton.

"It's the fate of people in my job to be asked to face both ways at once," he quipped as photographers took pictures from in front and behind him on the Holland Town Housing Estate.

Mr Kennedy, who in his victory speech on Monday pledged to campaign on social issues, chatted to people about the problems of inner-city life. One pensioner, Gloria Prawl- Campbell, 68, said that crime was rife and asked for closed-circuit television cameras to be installed.

The mother of three, who arrived in Britain 44 years ago from Jamaica, said the mugging of elderly people was "disgusting" and said that she and others found it difficult to go out.

Mr Kennedy nodded grimly at her analysis.

"I think it is important that people like me hear at first hand exactly what reality can be like," he said.

"The message that came through loud and clear from our leadership election was a consistent view from Liberal Democrats from Aberdeen to Cornwall that social justice matters and that it should have a higher priority in politics than it's getting from New Labour. One of the things I am determined we will do as a party is to put social justice at the forefront. Today it happens to be the south bank of the Thames, an inner-city area. Equally, there is deprivation and poverty in rural Britain as well."

Unfortunately for the youthful Liberal Democrat leader, Mrs Campbell disclosed that she was a Labour voter and liked Tony Blair so much that she shook his hand in Downing Street the day after the last election.

All was not lost, however, as she also thought Mr Kennedy was a "very nice man" and that she may even vote for his party in a by-election later this month. The relief on the leader's face was palpable. One down, 33 million to go.