Kennedy forced to defend his style of leadership to Lib-Dem faithful

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Indy Politics

Questions over his stewardship of the Liberal Democrat party emerged when Nasser Butt, a delegate from Mole Valley, Surrey, demanded to know why he had been diverted from campaigning for election to Parliament because he was forced to defend Mr Kennedy's leadership position. The intervention came after concern was raised about the party's performance in the general election, when the Liberal Democrats failed to gain target Tory seats.

Mr Kennedy shrugged off the criticism, insisting: "It ain't going to stop me."

Mr Butt, who has twice been a Liberal Democrat candidate, said: "I spent a lot of time defending successfully my party leader on the doorstep and to my members. But should the candidate be spending so much time defending the party leader rather than converting the votes?

"I was successfully able to defend, but the point is a lot of my time was wasted. Is there something wrong with the image that is coming across to people? The question is: should we be spending so much time defending a party leader?"

Mr Kennedy retorted: "The broad agreement across the country, and it's borne out in opinion surveys, is that, compared with other party leaders, the party leader from the Liberal Democrats by and large has been considered to be a considerable asset for the Liberal Democrats.

"But what I will say, having had a fair amount of experience of parliamentary politics ... you can set your watch [by it]; the most significant attacks we will get and, as your principal UK representative, I will get, lo and behold, will coincide with election time.

"That is the moment at which our opponents, the other parties or their allies in the media and the press, will do all they can to stop the forward march of liberal democracy.

"It ain't going to stop me because I have a very thick skin. Having been in politics a long time, I don't lose sleep about it and I don't think you should either."

Mr Kennedy was pressed by Mr Kelner about whether he could countenance a coalition with the Conservatives, particularly under Ken Clarke. Mr Kennedy replied that he was determined to retain his party's independence. "To start speculating about compromising our independence when we don't have PR, we don't know who the leaders of the other parties are going to be and we don't know the outcome of the general election, if anything, would blunt our ambition and thwart our message."

Mr Kennedy said: "Looking at the Conservative Party, we don't know who the leader is anyway and we don't know what on earth set of policies or views the parliamentary Conservative Party will come up with.They either keep changing their views on the issue of the day or, on the big enduring issues, they reach exactly the wrong decision either on Europe or Iraq, which I know by my gut instinct this party would never sign up to."

Mr Kelner also pressed the Liberal Democrat leader over the party's plan to introduce a 50 per cent top rate of income tax and asked whether the proposal should be dropped, but Mr Kennedy refused to be drawn on the outcome of his policy review: "I don't think people are going to resile from the idea that the very best off in society should pay that bit more."

Earlier Sir Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, launched a strong defence of the policy, but Chris Huhne, the MP for Eastleigh, Hampshire, questioned whether it was the best way of redistributing income.

Mr Kennedy was questioned by Mr Kelner about whether he retained the enthusiasm to lead the party even though it was still far from power.

The Liberal Democrat leader said: "We have to work proportionately harder for every vote ... if you don't have the energy and enthusiasm for it, the demands that are upon us. It's a never-ending circuit as the party leader these days. If you weren't keen on that kind of life, you wouldn't take very long to decide that you could be doing other things."

He praised The Independent's campaign for electoral reform and insisted that the Liberal Democrats still faced a "deeply unfair" voting system that meant support for the party was not represented.

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