Kennedy reshuffles to attack rivals on services

Charles Kennedy is to shuffle his frontbench team to prepare his party for the next election and promote up-and- coming MPs. The leader of the Liberal Democrats wants public services and the environment to have a higher profile to enable him to aim at Tory and Labour seats.

He wants his right-hand man Mark Oaten, the MP for Winchester, to develop higher visibility than he has in his current role as chairman of the parliamentary party. Mr Oaten is to be given a job with a public-services agenda.

The shake-up, to be announced in the next few weeks, will depend on the movements of Simon Hughes, the Home Affairs spokesman, who is to run for Mayor of London.

Mr Oaten, who helped to steer the party away from a slide to the left, is the favourite to take over from Mr Hughes.

He is under pressure from some to quit his home affairs role to allow him to concentrate 100 per cent on fighting the mayoral election now his chances are thought to have been improved by the Liberal Democratic victory in the Brent East by-election last week.

But the campaigning MP may refuse to relinquish his title, which would mean his deputy, David Heath, may have to take on the burden of the home affairs job in an enhanced role.

Jenny Tonge, who has held the international development job for six years, is planning to retire as an MP at the next election and will be moved. Norman Lamb, a member of the Treasury team, is a favourite to take Ms Tonge's job, but he has a perilously small majority in his North Norfolk constituency and may want extra time to consolidate the seat.

Michael Moore, number two in the foreign affairs team, is tipped for promotion to the international development role after deputising for Menzies Campbell during the Iraq war while Mr Campbell recovered from cancer.

The Liberal Democrat leader is planning to promote one of the new batch of MPs to the frontbench culture role recently vacated by Nick Harvey. Sandra Gidley, who won the Romsey by-election in 2000 and has the portfolio on women, may be giventhe job.

Health will also be an important battleground in the months ahead and Mr Kennedy wants to promote alternative Liberal Democrat policies with greater vigour.

Education will also be given more weight and the drive will be led by Phil Willis, who is expected to stay in the job after scoring points against the Government on tuition fees and school funding. He has managed to quell grumblings from some on the right of the party that he is too close to the trades unions.

Mr Kennedy wants Norman Baker, the environment spokesman, to continue to boost the party's profile on green issues, which he believes have wide appeal for young voters.

Richard Allan, who is retiring from his Sheffield Hallam seat at the next election, may be moved from his job shadowing cabinet office issues.

* Liberal Democrats voted last night to lower the drink-drive limit in line with levels across Europe. A motion was also passed at the conference in Brighton supporting the introduction of a new offence of causing death by negligent driving.

The votes were made after party officials unveiled proposals to improve road safety, including the creation of a body to investigate road crashes.

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