Ailing Kennedy tells Lib Dems he is back after missing Budget

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Indy Politics

Liberal Democrat MPs received a pager message yesterday telling them: "Charles Kennedy is back on the go and looking forward to seeing you in Southport." The message, on the eve of the party's Spring Conference, was meant to reassure them that following their party leader's failure to attend the Budget and Prime Minister's Questions because of "a violent stomach bug" earlier this week he was now back in business.

Liberal Democrat MPs received a pager message yesterday telling them: "Charles Kennedy is back on the go and looking forward to seeing you in Southport." The message, on the eve of the party's Spring Conference, was meant to reassure them that following their party leader's failure to attend the Budget and Prime Minister's Questions because of "a violent stomach bug" earlier this week he was now back in business.

His decision not to attend, which gave his deputy Sir Menzies Campbell only 12 minutes to prepare to confront the Prime Minister, provoked a furious round of rumours at Westminster about the reason for his sudden illness.

The party leader, according to Lib Dem sources, was "throwing up all over the place" and could not go on because he was so ill.

The episode has provoked the tabloid press to take an unusual interest in the Lib Dems' Southport conference. Reporters have been despatched on "whisky watch" with orders to see if they can catch Mr Kennedy with a drink in his hand.

Yesterday, as the conference kicked off, the Westminster gossip mill was still running on overdrive. Sky News reported that the party leader had been in hospital for a few days. In fact, said one MP minutes after the report, he had not been in hospital at all but had visited one in the afternoon as part of a schedule of visits.

Mr Kennedy, who had to cancel a day of appointments on Thursday because he was feeling so ill, was spotted at the conference yesterday "looking terrible."

Aides said that, although he was still feeling under the weather, he planned to continue with a round of interviews and meetings today and was "fully intending to make his key note speech to delegates on Sunday". But, they acknowledged, if he is too ill he may have to pull out of his keynote speech, where he plans to attack Tory policies and Michael Howard for opportunism.

"I am assuming he will speak," said one aide. "He will try to struggle on."

Mr Kennedy's illness is a sore distraction from the serious business of the conference where the party, riding high in the polls, will try to communicate its policy agenda for the next election.

Yesterday MPs were clear that Mr Kennedy will need to make a "strong speech" to shut up the doubting commentators and refocus them on the party's policy agenda.

The party had been hoping that a speech by Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman, would be the focal point of the conference. He plans to set out the party's progressive taxation agenda and proposals to reduce Whitehall spending to redeploy cash for hospitals and schools.

Ed Davey, the party's local government spokesman, will set out the party's plans to abolish the council tax and replace it with a local income tax to help pensioners and other low-income households

And Sir Menzies, the party's Foreign Affairs spokesman, will reiterate his criticism of Tony Blair's decision to go to war on Iraq and his failure to conduct a full inquiry into the political decision-making and intelligence that led to military action.

Yesterday Sir Menzies said the party was now moving onto a general election footing after Gordon Brown's political Budget.

"Brown has signalled the start of elections and the Liberal Democrats are ready for that campaign," he said.

Lib Dem delegates will also vote on a clutch of radical motions including a proposal to make pornography - including hard-core erotic videos - more readily available to everyone over 16. They also want to make it easier to set up sex shops.

The party will also debate plans to impose a 10p tax on the use of a plastic bag and to legalise euthanasia for terminally-ill people to alleviate severe suffering.

Before the election campaign kicks off in earnest MPs want to clear the party's agenda of radical policy proposals, including the plan to lower from age 18 to 16 the age at which the public can buy pornography.

The proposal to relax the porn laws, championed by young Liberal Democrats, has been debated for several years at party conferences, despite the unease of the leadership.

Yesterday Sandra Gidley, Liberal Democrat MP for Romsey, said she thought such debates were a distraction from the serious policy agenda and selling the party' economic proposals and policies about hospitals and schools.

Last night Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' candidate for mayor of London, set out his plans to make the capital more secure against a terrorist attack. Mr Hughes told a rally in Southport that he wanted the London authorities to "triple check their disaster action plans".

About 1,000 delegates are expected in Southport for the three-day conference. There will also be debates on Iraq, health, home affairs, the high prison population, the economy and tuition fees.

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