Lib Dem Conference: A realistic fireside chat with some original jokes

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IT WAS almost an anti-speech, more a fireside chat than the kind of dizzying, inspirational concept building with which Paddy Ashdown used to challenge and bewitch his party.

Charles Kennedy re-ferred twice to the national political "conversation", and conversing was just what he seemed to be doing for most of the 51 minutes he was at the rostrum yesterday. But the audience left, if not ecstatic, happy despite Mr Kennedy deliberately eschewing Mr Ashdown's visionary rhetoric.

This was the more remarkable since Mr Kennedy did not play that much to the activist gallery in the hall.

In particular he confronted his audience, early in his speech, with his plan to wrench the task of electing the main policy committees of the party from the unrepresentative ranks of those who attend the conference and give it to the wider membership.

This is not quite Clause IV, but it is a bold and important modernising change which should help to make the party's pronouncements more realistic - and perhaps reduce their number.

He delighted the party by being fully liberal in backing gays in the military and a Royal Commission exploring the legalisation of cannabis. He revived the dormant commitment to local income tax to replace the council tax. While avoiding specifics, he repeated unequivocally that the public services rather than tax cuts should be the object of Gordon Brown's pre-election largesse. But he was equally unequivocal in saying there was no future for the party in the territory to the left of Labour.

He made no effort to appease the sizeable Euro- sceptic minority of the party's supporters in his firm declaration that to be pro-Euro was to be patriotic.

One of the most effective passages, oddly, was a self-deprecating ad lib.

He said that parliament, including the opposition parties, had been as much to blame as the government of the day for the appalling shambles, however well intended, of the Child Support Agency, whose victims subsequently filled the Saturday morning constituency surgeries of the MPs who by their negligence had visited this disaster on them.

Charles Kennedy is probably the only European party leader who writes his own jokes. Most of them, from his opening words, "Have I got news for you" were very good. It was probably tactful, given his sharp message about reducing the power of conference activ-ists, that he left out one of the best: "Now a word for our trainspotters in the audience. I'm sure there's quite a lot of you."

That said, for all its easy personal amiability, this was an effective performance from a leader asserting his grip on his party, clear about where he wanted to go.

His style is different from Mr Ashdown's but the strategic direction does not look so different. Mr Kennedy re-identified the Tories as the Liberal Democrats' political opponents. He made clear he had no intention of ruling out further co-operation with the Government, which must leave open the possibility that the joint cabinet committee will have its remit extended.

And he left little doubt that he is a practical politician eager for power and convinced that coalition with Labour is the only sensible route to it. He could hardly have been more realistic than that.