Lib Dem Conference: The Sketch; A funny thing must have happened on the way to the stage

CHARLES KENNEDY had obviously decided to keep the hall waiting. Baroness Maddock announced his name with the familiar upward trill of fanfare and delegates erupted into applause. Which gradually turned into puzzled applause... which slowly turned to worried applause. Where was he? Had he changed his mind? Were party officials even now trying to pry his fingers off the push-bar on the emergency exit? The applause began to falter, until delegates realised that silence was scarcely an option. They would clap until nightfall, if necessary, until Mr Kennedy had been coaxed down off the slates of the Majestic Hotel and persuaded that even the leader of the Liberal Democrats can lead a useful and fulfilling life.

But then Mr Kennedy sauntered on, as if he'd just been called aside from another conversation to say hello to an old friend. The printed text of his address had opened with the dubious assertion that "the leadership election was a unifying experience" for the party. Obviously all party leaders must at some point demonstrate their ability to wedge an oversized pork-pie into their mouths and then smile for the cameras, all without showing any outward signs of distress (or any tell-tale glimpses of pie- crust). But Mr Kennedy had clearly decided that it was unwise to tackle this challenge in his very first sentence.

Better to work up to it, as more experienced party-leaders do, with a few self-deprecating jokes ("Well, have I got news for you") and a bit of friendly banter: "This is for me a unique audience," he said, voice thick with mock gravity, "I have never addressed... so many potential members of the House of Lords."

Mr Kennedy's speech had a lot of sentences. Short sentences. Passionate and decent sentences. It had jokes too and quite smart ones at times. But it did not have a clearly discernible plot and he didn't cover that lack with his voice, pulling his listeners steadily upwards to a final capping peroration which would send them out thrilled and a little vertiginous at the height they'd been lead to.

He is good at treating the audience as intimates, far less practised at treating them as a crowd, a mass to be swayed as one.

He got his standing ovation, naturally. But as delegates murmured "good" to each other as they filed from the hall, there was an interrogatory lilt to the word, which told you they were checking, not asserting. "Good?" may be good enough for the moment - but Mr Kennedy will have to do better if he wants to excite his party, rather than just impress it.

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