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Lib Dem Conference: Enter the leader - but the party doesn't notice

THE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT rank and file resolutely refuse to be in awe of their new leader. As Charles Kennedy arrived for his first big meeting of the conference, organised by Britain In Europe, he was confronted by a phalanx of television cameras - but the audience failed to stand or even applaud.

The great and good - in the shape of Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins - were in attendance to give their official blessing. One party wag suggested Roy probably thought the leader was just another new recruit to whom he was presenting a Young Liberal Democrats membership card.

Mr Kennedy's speech pressed all the Euro buttons, but he got the Liberal Democrat bird from some, who heckled his claim that the party had been at the forefront of promoting the single currency in the European elections.

Most recalled that the campaign literature hardly mentioned Europe. While he attacked Labour's European campaign, it was significant that he made no criticism personally of Tony Blair. Maybe the Blair/Kennedy axis is stronger than we think.

THE STORY behind the decision by Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, to withdraw from the leadership race was revealed yesterday. Previously the party's lone Eurosceptic, Mr Harvey wrote an article for The Expressdetailing his sudden conversion to the single currency - in time for the leadership election.

Lord Hollick, the Expressoverlord, later told the Britain In Europe committee that "even the cricketer Neil Harvey is supporting the single currency". Neil Harvey was in fact an Australian cricketer who retired more than 30 years ago.

But the MP for North Devon decided that name recognition and confusion with the cricketer would be a problem if he persisted, he joked yesterday. He threw in the towel to back Mr Kennedy and is now an ardent supporter of Britain In Europe.

LAST NIGHT'S Liberal Democrat party political broadcast turned into a family affair for chief spin-doctor David Walter. Among celebrities introducing Charles Kennedy to the nation was actress Natalie Walter - daughter of David. At least the Liberal Democrats named her - unlike Labour and Tory broadcasts, which often used unnamed actors with no connection, sympathy or support for the party on whose behalf they are appearing.

BIGGEST disappointment was the cancellation of a visit to the conference by Jose Ramos-Horta, the East Timor activist and Nobel Prize winner who was to have addressed a rally.

Mr Ramos-Horta was flying from New York, and expected the party to pick up his pounds 3,000 club class fare. Party officials were concerned about their limited resources, and relief showed when their guest cancelled to attend UN emergency meetings on the crisis.