Kennedy sweats it out and wins over Scottish faithful

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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy joked yesterday that politics was as much about perspiration as inspiration as he attempted to draw a line under 10 torrid days in which fears over his health paralysed his leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

Charles Kennedy joked yesterday that politics was as much about perspiration as inspiration as he attempted to draw a line under 10 torrid days in which fears over his health paralysed his leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

With speculation growing that he could be succeeded by his deputy, he mocked his own disastrous appearance before the party's spring conference. Doubts over Mr Kennedy's well-being had been triggered when he pulled out of the Commons debate on the Budget because of a "violent stomach bug". They intensified when he appeared pale and gaunt and sweated prodigiously as he addressed Liberal Democrat activists in Southport on Sunday.

But Mr Kennedy seemed a different man when he addressed the party's Scottish conference in Dundee yesterday as he light-heartedly referred to the illness that had laid him low. He recalled that Jim Wallace, the party's Scottish leader, had often observed "how much of politics was about perspiration as much as inspiration". To laughter and applause, he added: "I never realised until I got off my sick bed last week to deliver a certain party address in Southport just how telling that observation proved to be."

Moments later he invoked the spirit of Winston Churchill - who represented Dundee at Westminster for 10 years - to underline his commitment to the job he has held for nearly five years. "He, too, in a different context, was the man who promised nothing other than blood, toil, tears and sweat," he said. "I have not come here to spill blood this afternoon, I certainly toil away at the job, I don't want to leave you in tears and I think last weekend I did more than my bit for sweat."

Although Kennedy aides will have judged his appearance a success, and will hope it has scotched dark mutterings about his fitness and lifestyle, the past 10 days have exposed deep scepticism among senior colleagues over his abilities.

After charges that he has relied on too small a circle of aides, in the coming weeks he will seek to rebuild his relationship with his MPs and keep them better informed about his leadership. A Kennedy loyalist complained yesterday: "We think there's a bunker mentality in his office."

After missing two key Commons speeches in the past year - on membership of the single currency and on last week's Budget - he will also need to reassure them he is the man to lead them into a gruelling election campaign.

One MP summed up the doubts of several when he said: "What happens if he lets us down at the general election? Is he going to get us through it?"

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