Queasy-looking Charles Kennedy rushed to hospital for vote-saving operation on patients

It's 8.45am and Charles Kennedy is looking a little the worse for wear. Peering through poached-egg eyes, the Liberal Democrat leader is alternately puffing on a cigarette and sipping coffee from a plastic cup. Mr Kennedy, as they say, is not a morning person.

But ever the dutiful leader, he's on an early train to promote what he hopes will be the Liberal Democrats' first spectacular by-election victory under his leadership.

The rock-solid Tory seat of Romsey (majority 8,535) is the destination and Mr Kennedy is on his fourth visit to helpSandra Gidley give William Hague a bloody mid-term nose on 4 May.

Appropriately enough for a man who looks in need of an Alka Seltzer, Mr Kennedy had a hospital appointment in the form of a campaign visit to Romsey's main medical centre, Southampton General Hospital.

At the main entrance, he was met by Ms Gidley before he embarked on an exhaustive one-hour tour aimed at pointing out the iniquities of Tory and Labour health policies.

Arriving in the accident and emergency department, Mr Kennedy was told of funding shortages by consultants and nurses before hitting upon a spin-doctor's dream.

Carl Pascal-Murray, a patient on a trolley with an arm injury, pointed out that he had been waiting for an orthopaedic bed since 4.30am. He was not happy.

Mr Kennedy, his eyes now widening, empathised. "I'll make sure your message is heard loud and clear," he promised in his best George Clooney voice.

Mr Pascal-Murray was clearly left impressed. "He's a gentleman. He's made an effort to come and see what it's really like," he said. Would he be voting for Ms Gidley? "I will weigh it up," he said, in true, non-committal, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other fashion. A bit of a Liberal Democrat cert, some might say.

After hearing doctors' complaints about a lack of beds in the intensive care unit, Mr Kennedy was then on to the coronary care unit, where his bedside manner, a mixture of self-deprecation and casual irony, worked its magic again.

"Sorry about his, I always bring 12 of my closest friends with me," he explains as the TV camera crews and photographers clock his every move.

Phillip Paddick, a pensioner with heart trouble, fell for the Kennedy charms. "He's a nice talker. I'm sick of the other lot," he said.

With two weeks to polling, health has been established as one of the Liberal Democrats' campaign themes in Romsey, followed closely by school funding, post office closures and the 75p pension increase.

The party hopes that by attacking both the Government and the Tories, it can squeeze Labour's vote and persuade those in the poorer parts of the sprawling constituency to turn out.

The Tories are loudly confident of victory, claiming that Tim Palmer, a gentleman farmer from Dorset, is the perfect candidate to succeed Michael Colvin, whose death in a house fire caused the byelection.

However, the first sign that the Conservatives have been rattled by their opponents came yesterday when Michael Ancram, the party chairman, swept into the constituency.

He claimed the Liberal Democrats would scrap the pound, close post offices, allow "a flood of asylum-seekers", back gay marriage, legalise brothels and "go soft on drugs". He didn't quite say Mr Kennedy would kill all first born in Hampshire, but he came close.

But for Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' by-election guru who masterminded their spectacular victories such as those in Christchurch and Newbury, Romsey is certainly winnable.

The "big mo", a politico term for the "big momentum" as opposed to the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, is what he wants. "The 'mo' is definitely here. Whether the 'big mo' is here, it's too early to tell," Mr Rennard says.

Just as the visit ends, there is a sudden buzz that the party may have found its secret weapon for the by-election. There is a rumour that Charlie Dimmock, television's most photographed gardener and Romsey's most famous resident, is a Liberal Democrat supporter.

Of course, the two Charlies already have lots in common. Like Ms Dimmock, Mr Kennedy has red hair, never wears a bra and is prepared to get his hands dirty if the task demands it.

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