Of all the plaudits that Charles Kennedy received after Sarah Teather's victory in the Brent East by-election, one mattered more than most. A fax arrived in his Commons office from Paddy Ashdown, his predecessor and now the UN's high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, saying: "Many congratulations to you all! The team have done magnificently again - please pass on my warm congratulations and also my best wishes to Sarah. You make us all proud!"
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon did not want Mr Kennedy to succeed him as leader of the Liberal Democrats - that is an open secret - so his endorsement was all the more welcome. Another thought was in Mr Kennedy's mind: Tony Blair had worked the international community hard to win Lord Ashdown the Bosnia post, and considered appointing two Liberal Democrats to his Cabinet on winning power in 1997. And yet the Prime Minister told the Commons last Wednesday: "The day we have the foreign policy of this country run by the Liberal Democrats is the day this country really would be at risk."
Mr Kennedy manages a wry smile. "It's a rewriting of fairly recent history to say the least. I don't read too much into the banter that goes on at the dispatch box on these occasions. He [Mr Blair] is looking a bit rattled where we are concerned and that is healthy in a parliamentary democracy."
The once-cosy relationship between Labour and the Liberal Democrats had cooled long before Mr Kennedy's party invaded Labour's natural territory in Brent last week. It now seems incredible that, even after Labour won a thumping majority, Mr Blair and Lord Ashdown were involved in intense talks about a partnership, coalition and eventual merger. Today, Mr Blair rallies his restive backbench troops by firing bullets at the Liberal Democrats. Talk of a historic realignment is over; the parties have gone their separate ways.
Mr Kennedy and his wife, Sarah, have apparently fallen off the Blairs' dinner-party list. Relations are cordial when the couples meet at official functions. Mr Kennedy hopes "a degree of mutual respect" remains between him and the Prime Minister, but admits their relationship has changed.
"It's certainly become more distant, particularly over the prolonged period of distinct difference on Iraq," he says. He met Mr Blair to talk about the war and the "not yet" verdict on the euro announced in June. But there has been no other contact. "Battle lines are hardening as this parliament goes on, the longer this Government is in power and the more differences that emerge."
The Joint Cabinet Committee (JCC), on which Liberal Democrats sat beside ministers, is a distant memory. "I think the box marked 'JCC' is going to remain firmly with its lid closed for the rest of this parliament," Mr Kennedy says. "If the phone went this afternoon and he [Mr Blair] put proportional representation on the table, then I would happily agree to a meeting of the JCC to discuss that. But I am not planning my diary on that basis. I don't think Tony is either."
And yet, the suspicion remains that, if Mr Blair picked up the phone after the next general election and needed the Liberal Democrats' support to remain in office, they would come running.
Mr Kennedy is not convinced. He refuses to speculate on whether his party would endorse Labour in the event of a hung parliament. "Funnily enough, when you say 'Vote for us to come third', lo and behold, you tend to come third. We do much better if we don't get into hung parliaments and coalitions because it just muddies the water and blunts our message completely. Far better to put your case forward crisply, cleanly, invite people to support it and say 'However many votes and MPs we get, we will use that influence to push forward as much of that agenda as we can'."
He drops a clear hint that the Liberal Democrats might go it alone. "It may well be that we emerge from the next election with an improved showing but actually much happier as a party continuing on a fully independent basis," he says.
Some Liberal Democrat strategists believe the party could double its 54-strong group of MPs. Mr Kennedy is not setting a target in public. What he will say is that last Thursday's triumph shows that his party can advance in both Labour and Conservative heartlands.
He has ordered a big push in the inner cities. "In Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Islington, Haringey and Gateshead, there is not a single elected Conservative councillor. That is amazing. It's also very bad for democracy. That shows the opportunity that is there for us." He adds: "It doesn't look to me, for the foreseeable future, that Labour is going to have a great deal of success in motivating many of the people in those kinds of areas. People are fundamentally disillusioned with Labour in power."
Mr Kennedy admits that 80 per cent of his party's most winnable parliamentary seats are held by the Tories. But he denies that the Liberal Democrats will need a different message to the one they used in last week's contest. "I found in Brent that nobody talks to you in terms of left or right. We do all the time at Westminster but out there people just don't. They talk about the problems and want to know have you got a solution. That's a real change in the way politics is being conducted now. It's much more post-ideological."
Iain Duncan Smith made a "fundamental mistake" in branding the Liberal Democrats a left-wing party after Brent, he says. Former Tory supporters see the [Conservative] party as "off the field" and the Liberal Democrats as "the one party that is at least taking its case to the Government, challenging them and indeed demonstrating that it can take them on and beat them. That makes us more attractive to those kind of voters, not less."
But capturing more Tory seats could help Labour retain power, he admits. "There remains a degree of interest on Labour's part on being able to see us take the fight to those parts where Labour is not really a significant factor."
All this adds up to a golden opportunity for his party to become the real opposition, he believes. "We have growing grounds for making that case. We are able to fight Labour with some success. And the demise of the Conservative Party has opened up a vacuum."
Even people who did not share his party's hostility to the Iraq war respected it for remaining consistent and united, he believes. His stance was a gamble, but it appears to have paid off, notably in Brent. Did Mr Kennedy ever waver? He confesses to having a nightmare scenario: if the intelligence on Iraqi weapons persuaded him to back military action and the UN Security Council supported a war. "I think there would have been considerable tensions within the party, quite honestly," he says. "But history didn't work out that way, on both counts."
Mr Kennedy's message to this week's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton is that the party must display the boldness it showed on Iraq on other issues - public services, slimming central government, the environment and the "small l" or civil liberties agenda.
"The second message is that there is a big opportunity for us but we mustn't fall into the trap of spending too much time talking about the perceived shortcomings of the other parties," he says. "We have to talk positively about what we want to be and let people make their own minds up. I get the impression, again and again, that people are much more responsive to that approach than the yah-boo politics that attaches itself to Westminster."
The other bonus from the spectacular success in Brent is that it will surely quell the rumblings against Mr Ken-nedy from within his own party. Two months ago, the gossip was that he was tired and had lost the stomach for the political fight, if not for a drink. Even before the by-election, though, close colleagues said he had returned from a summer break in Spain and Scotland with his old zest.
"I am not sure about it coming from our own party," he says. "It seems to me that the better the Liberal Democrats are seen to be doing - and we are having a pretty successful electoral year - the more we are going to attract flak and criticism. In particular it will go to the leader. So we are just going to have to get used to the fact that politics is a rough, tough world. We have got to be mature and robust, but we don't respond in kind. In any case, I don't think it resonates out there in the real world."Reuse content