Reasons to be cheerful: Kennedy bullish on poll's eve

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Indy Politics

A buoyant Charles Kennedy predicted that the Liberal Democrats were heading for a "massive increase" in support as he said the party had "reasons to be cheerful" in the final hours of the campaign.

Optimistic that he could deal the Tories a body blow at the polls, the Liberal Democrats predicted "record poll support", with gains in a string of marginal seats. The party's polling shows it is running neck-and-neck with Labour and the Tories in seats across Britain and is on course to gain high-profile scalps.

Mr Kennedy held his final press conference of the campaign, declaring he had started "tired" but now felt "rejuvenated".

Lord Razzall, the Liberal Democrat campaigns chief, claimed the party's "decapitation strategy" of top Tories, including Michael Howard, was on track. "They know who they are and they know we are coming for them," he said.

At Cowley Street, the Liberal Democrats' London headquarters, the mood was upbeat, with predictions that they could outflank the SNP and come second in Scotland.

But campaign managers warned that the result was so close that it was "coming down to hand-to-hand combat" in marginal seats across the country.

In Brent East, the site of a ground-breaking Liberal Democrat by-election victory in 2003, Mr Kennedy made a final election visit. He declared the Tory vote was collapsing and Labour was looking rattled.

"We are seeing a haemorrhage in support for the Conservatives. There is an optimistic, buoyant feeling about the Liberal Dem-ocrats as we close the campaign," he said. "I have found it personally very enjoyable indeed. We have set out our case and really got through to people."

Last night, the party was warning that the result was "unpredictable" and "extremely close" in scores of target seats.

"The mood is very bullish, but it is too close to call in a lot of marginals," said one Liberal Democrat source. "We are talking about the last 1,000 votes, which are always much harder to get than the first 5,000."

In key Conservative battlegrounds the Liberal Democrats have been gaining, including in Taunton, Haltemprice and Howden, held by the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, and Dorset West, held by the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, despite a concerted Tory battle to hold on.

The anti-Blair effect is also helping Liberal Democrat prospects in Labour seats such as Hornsey and Wood Green, held by the former minister Barbara Roche. The Liberal Democrats are optimistic of snatching Cardiff Central and Birmingham Yardley from Labour.

The party is hopeful of gaining their best share of the vote since 1983, the hey-day of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and the most seats since 1923. They are also hopeful of building on the 54 they currently have with a tally of at least 70. Some are hopeful of finishing the election count with 85 MPs.

But if the party gains 25 per cent of the vote and fails to see a huge rise in Parliamentary seats, it is bound to provoke a fresh call for electoral reform.

In Brent East yesterday, the site of the by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats, the signs were that the party was consolidating support after a swing to them from Labour in the past week.

Sarah Teather, the incumbent MP, said the result in her seat "would be close, but hopefully the right side of close". The Liberal Democrat campaign in Brent looked as if it had squeezed the Tories enough to help them defeat Labour.