Kennedy slaps down his rivals and calls on party to maintain its trust

Facing down the growing number of critics of his leadership style, Mr Kennedy made it clear he was determined to lead his party into the next election.

Setting out his vision for Britain in a highly personal speech intended to reassert his authority, the Liberal Democrat leader called for "unity" and stated that it was his ambition "to lead the first government in the liberal tradition in the 21st century".

He also indirectly slapped down possible rivals for the leadership in impromptu remarks in which he said the party needed "good, genuine, mature political leadership".

"Good political leadership to me involves getting the big decisions right - however difficult, however potentially divisive - and then being able to take people with you," he said.

Mr Kennedy's robust speech ensured that he enjoyed a relatively successful conclusion to a sometimes uncomfortable week. Turning his fire on Tony Blair, he accused the Prime Minister of "blind support" for President US George Bush over Iraq and said the presence of British troops in Iraq was now a part of the problem rather than the solution. President Bush's "war on terror", he said, had increased rather than diminished the likelihood of terrorism around the world.

Much of the speech, however, was devoted to internal party tensions. In a barely coded attack on leadership pretenders, such as Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat president, Mr Kennedy said scornfully: "Others may have become so full of themselves that they also think they're full of better ideas about leadership."

The address drew a six-minute standing ovation. Afterwards allies of the leader said they felt reassured he had not lost his appetite for the job. Some critics of Mr Kennedy, who this week have blamed him for "drift" and lacklustre direction of the party, said afterwards that the speech had quelled their fears.

Mr Kennedy declared that his leadership offered the "best prospect for the success of our party - and with it the good of our country". He tried to answer criticism that he has lacked focus since the election and said he had wanted to "take stock" and "listen".

"Four months after leading our cause through to its most successful general election outcome in over 80 years seems to me to be a good time to take stock and listen - then to reach correct conclusions," he said. "And then to come back with those conclusions in place and to enable our party to move forward in unity. Now - that is how I have sought to lead our party for the past six years. That is how I intend to continue to lead our party."

Mr Kennedy told delegates he would not allow the party to lurch to the right, drawing loud cheers and applause when he declared: "What people don't want and don't deserve and don't demand is yet another conservative party in British politics - small c or capital c."

But he also hinted he would not dismiss the Orange Book wing of the party, who favour reform of public services, including a fresh look at whether the health service should be replaced with the insurance-based system used in mainland Europe.

Mr Kennedy said he wanted to see "liberal solutions based on our liberal principles", and declared that he would give his personal backing to proposals to part-privatise the Royal Mail, and place a cap on the European Union budget. Both policies were rejected by the conference floor earlier this week.

In highly personal passages Mr Kennedy talked about his Scottish roots and his view of Britishness. He harked back to his selection as a parliamentary candidate aged 23 and urged delegates to maintain trust in his leadership.

"At this election this year we persuaded one million more people than we got to support us at the last," he said. "We have millions more to win over but I want to do it because I believe we can do it, and when we can do it it's not just about me and it's not just about you. It's about our country. It's about Britain. It's about a Liberal Democrat Britain."

He insisted: "I will lead this party into the next election as the clear alternative to a discredited Labour government."

'A clear vision - he nailed the leadership issue'

Richard Moore, Bexhill and Battle

"The speech dealt with the leadership issue. He raised his game and talked about leadership in a direct way. He stressed the Liberals have to get out of this habit of emphasising left or right. He now has to build on the speech and show in the next year where he stands on the issues he highlighted."

Lord Fearn of Southport

"Charles has a child to look after and wisely he devoted time during conference to say 'hello' to his new son. He has his priorities right. Charles is a doer and this will shine through in the coming months. I think he is stronger than before."

Lord Clement Jones

"The speech showed Charles has the conviction and passion, and why he is in politics. It did the business. He said, 'I am going to do what is right and I am not going to move to the right'. He gave reassurance. It was his best conference speech."

James Sanderson, Tower Hamlets

"It has been a good week for Charles. There was a lot of debate about the future direction of the party. I think he will be criticised whatever he does. But he does need to project a stronger image in terms of public perception. He is very well regarded."

Vera Head, Chesham and Amersham

"Charles has been extremely good this conference. We are all happy with him. He should lead us into the next election. I don't know who his rivals are. I haven't seen anyone who thinks there should be a leadership challenge. "

Nahid Boethe, from Harrow

"One delegate mentioned Charles Kennedy's leadership at this conference. Sometimes, people question his leadership on the doorstep. But if you compare him with Tony Blair or Michael Howard there is no comparison. He stopped this talk and came across well. He is going to be leader as long as people want him."

Valerie Silbiger, president of the London regional party

"We have a very able parliamentary party. Of course, they are going to be ambitious but they are not ambitious to succeed Charles today or tomorrow or near in the future. He has done a great job leading the party and he is getting better every year."

Trevor Beswick, chairman of the Wigan Liberal Democrats

"I don't think there is a movement against him. We have to be grateful we have lots of talented people who could lead. His speech was brilliant. He answered all his critics and the membership is behind him."

Edward Lord, deputy federal party treasurer

"This was a clear vision and Charles nailed the leadership issue. We have had some spin and a little backbiting. That has been put to bed. Charles is not going anywhere. This is what he has always wanted."

Laura Willoughby, from Islington

"There is no feeling in the membership that there is a leadership issue. The party membership is cynical about the media and not cynical about the party. In Islington we have been successful fighting the Labour Party."

Leah Darbyshire from Merton

"This was a euphoric end to conference. It has given us real momentum. The future is good for us and we have done well against Labour. Charles is the best leader in British politics and we are keen to go back and continue the work."

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