A warm welcome for Kennedy's comeback

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Indy Politics

He may no longer be "champagne Charlie" there was still something of a party atmosphere when Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, took to the streets yesterday to make his first major public appearance since quitting over his alcohol problem.

Arriving a few minutes late for his tour of the town at the centre of next week's Westminster by-election, an upbeat Mr Kennedy announced it was "nice to be in Dunfermline".

"At least he knows where he is," shouted a wag from behind a gaggle of over-enthusiastic Liberal Democrat supporters who surrounded him.

Mr Kennedy was among several big-name politicians canvassing in the medieval town yesterday, a week before a new MP will be elected for the Dunfermline and West Fife seat after the death of Rachel Squires.

The Tory leader David Cameron, the Chancellor Gordon Brown and the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond were all on the trail of votes as they paraded in a mass of photographers, party supporters and children.

Although Labour's Ms Squires had an 11,500 majority, the constituency is hotly contested. "It's a two-horse race; Lib Dems versus Labour," said Mr Kennedy. "Anything can happen in a week and the swing to win this seat is half the swing that we were achieving towards the end of the last parliament, taking seats off Labour in other parts of the country."

Mr Kennedy was greeted warmly by people. "I love you, Charles," said one elderly lady pushing to shake his hand. "Don't start any tabloid scandal," he said, raising a laugh.

Despite his troubles and the controversy that followed his resignation it was clear his personal popularity remains largely undiminished. "I feel very good indeed," he replied to queries about his health. He denied he wished he was still leader and assured everyone he is still "on the wagon".

He added: "I am as healthy and fit as I was last month when I made my farewell contribution as leader and I am today making my initial party contribution as former leader."

But Billy Johnston, a former dockyard worker, watched the procession of candidates up and down the high street and said: "Who's going to vote for an alcoholic and two poofs. None of these guys have done anything for us. Look at this place; it's supposed to be the main street but it's full of charity shops and closed doors."

Once the seat of royalty, the birthplace of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and burial spot of Robert the Bruce, Dunfermline is wealth-bereft and fast becoming a commuter stop for Edinburgh.

The fight for the seat has been curious. Far from being a test of national politics, it is focused on issues such as the Forth bridge, the future of the hospital and the state of the area.

Where national issues do come into play, such as Iraq, the treatment of the local Black Watch regiment creates strong local feeling. "These Westminster MPs promise everything and deliver nothing," said Margaret Thomson, 62, and a resident for 40 years. "Ask any of them what they are going to do about the hospital closing and they just say they are looking into it.

"Unfortunately, Labour will probably win because it is so ingrained here that if they put a monkey up with a red rosette it would win."

Last May, the Liberal Democrats overtook the SNP to come second but their lead over the Nationalists is narrow. The Tories hope to improve their fourth place position, although the memory of Thatcherism is still strong in the area.

"Cameron has some neck showing his face in this area, a bloody Tory," said Hugh Gordon, a former Rosyth dockyard worker. "They closed the docks and shut the pits. When Thatcher came in, 30,000 people lost their jobs and now they want us to vote for them. He needs to hang his head in shame, not come here asking for votes."