Kennedy: health fears are 'bar talk'

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Charles Kennedy will seek to quash speculation about his health today, with a speech to party activists in which he will claim that the Liberal Democrats are the only British party to have made headway in the past year.

Mr Kennedy's weekend in Southport, where the Liberal Democrats are holding their spring conference, has been bedevilled by what he described as "conference bar talk", following his failure to show up in Parliament on Wednesday, when he was due to reply to Gordon Brown's Budget announcement.

Earlier this month, ITN decided not to broadcast an interview they had conducted with Mr Kennedy, on the day Tony Blair gave a speech warning about the continuing terrorist threat. ITN executives reputedly thought that Mr Kennedy had performed so poorly that it might damage his reputation.

ITN confirmed that the interview was withheld "for editorial reasons" and said there had been no complaint from Mr Kennedy's office.

The incidents have put Mr Kennedy under pressure to reassert his leadership when he speaks, at noon today.

Lord Tordoff, a former party chairman, told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Kennedy urgently needed to "restore confidence" in his leadership. "There were certainly a couple of raised eyebrows when we heard that he was not going to do the Budget," he said.

Another senior Liberal Democrat peer conceded that rumours about Mr Kennedy's health were undermining the party, and that he had been outperformed by the party's Treasury spokesman, Vincent Cable, who stood in for Mr Kennedy in the Budget debate at an hour's notice.

"It is embarrassing that people are saying what they are saying," said Baroness Walmsley, the party's home affairs spokeswoman in the Lords. She added: "I think Vincent did better than Charles would have done."

Mr Kennedy's staff said that he missed Wednesday's proceedings because he had been struck down overnight by a violent stomach bug.

Asked about his health when he later appeared at an anti-council tax protest, Mr Kennedy assured activists he was "feeling very good".

He said he was not on medication but conceded he was worried about his voice. "My one concern now is that the vocal chords hold up until tomorrow."

Mr Kennedy will remind activists that opinion polls are showing the Liberal Demo-crats 10 points ahead of where they were at the same stage in the last parliament.

By contrast, he will claim that the Conservatives "despite all the hype and all the hope" are stuck at the same level they were at when William Hague resigned the leadership in 2001.

He will also attack the Tories' "disgraceful" policies.

Mr Kennedy will add that the Liberal Democrats were right to oppose the Iraq war, and will campaign for the abolition of council tax and of student tuition fees and for the introduction of free personal care for the elderly.

The party will also introduce what an aide called "a new emphasis on crime".