Charles Kennedy, rather than Michael Howard or any subsequent Conservative leader, will be Britain's next non-Labour prime minister, according to one of his most senior advisers.
Lord Razzall, who heads the Liberal Democrats' campaigns unit, suggested that after last week's by-elections, a Liberal Democrat government could be in prospect "by the end of the decade".
For people with long political memories, the prediction will echo the famous boast made more than 20 years ago by David Steel, the leader of the Liberal Party during its alliance with the short-lived SDP, who told party activists to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government".
Lord Razzall said: "We're Labour's natural successors as the government of the country because we are more in tune with the country than the Conservatives.
"We have got this rump of a Tory party that appeals to 30 per cent of the electorate, and the other 70 per cent is up for grabs between us and the Labour Party. The next non-Labour government will be a Liberal Democrat government, whenever that comes. That is in the hands of the electorate, but whenever that comes, that government will be a Liberal Democrat government."
Lord Razzall was speaking the day after his party secured swings of more than 25 per cent in two by-elections, seizing the previously safe Labour seat of Leicester South and narrowly failing to gain Birmingham Hodge Hill.
He claimed that it was only the intervention of Respect, the party founded by the former Labour MP George Galloway to campaign against the Iraq war, that denied the Liberal Democrats a double victory. In Hodge Hill, Labour won by 460, while Respect collected 1,282 votes.
Parmjit Singh Gill's victory in Leicester South brings the number of Liberal Democrat MPs to 55, the largest third party contingent in the Commons since the Liberal Party split in 1931.
Back in 1981, when opinion polls were showing the Liberal-SDP alliance out in front of the Conservatives and Labour, Mr Steel, now Lord Steel, urged delegates at their annual conference to "prepare for government". But the alliance slipped back into third place in the general election, and fell into decline through most of the Eighties.
Lord Razzall said that when Charles Kennedy was elected party leader in 1999, the pair agreed that they needed a 10-year strategy to get Mr Kennedy into Downing Street "by the end of the decade".
His comments suggest that the Liberal Democrats hope to use next year's general election to establish themselves as a credible challenger - and bury public perception that a vote for them is a wasted vote - in the hope that by 2009 or the following year voters will be ready to reject a Labour government and turn to the most acceptable alternative.
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