Ashdown dismisses Kennedy return

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Indy Politics

Suggestions that Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, could return to the party as leader have been dismissed by his predecessor.

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon predicted that Mr Kennnedy's speech on Tuesday - which received two standing ovations from members of the Liberal Democrat party - was a "goodbye to the party".

"You never quite say never in politics but there are always exceptions, and one of those exceptions is when you leave the stage, you leave the stage," Lord Ashdown, who was succeeded by Mr Kennedy in 1998, told the BBC. "The perfect ex-leader's speech says goodbye to the party and doesn't take the spotlight off his successor. I think Charles Kennedy succeeded in doing that," he added.

Lord Ashdown suggested that Mr Kennedy had turned down an offer to shake Sir Menzies's hand at the end of his conference comeback speech. "I understand that Ming suggested to Charles that there should be a handshake etcetera, but Charles decided he didn't want to do that," he said. He said that he did not know Mr Kennedy's reasons for refusing a handshake on stage.

Sir Menzies sat in the front row during Mr Kennedy's speech - which avoided all mention of events that led to him standing down as leader in January - and led the ovation.

Sir Menzies, who described the speech as "outstanding", said he had discussed the choreography of the speech with Mr Kennedy, but the former leader had wanted to keep things simple. "I don't regard it as a snub," Sir Menzies said. He has said he would welcome Mr Kennedy back to the front bench when he is ready to return. There has reportedly been one private meeting between Mr Kennedy and Sir Menzies since the change in leadership in January.

Mr Kennedy's spokeswoman said she did not know why Lord Ashdown was suggesting the offer of a handshake had been refused. "We went ahead with the staging as discussed with the conference organisers," she said. "I don't think there was any deliberate snub intended."