Review of the year: The Lib Dems

Kennedy's on a sticky wicket
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Indy Politics

It should have been a triumphant year for Charles Kennedy. The general election delivered more parliamentary seats for the Liberals than at any time since 1923 - and a clutch of able new MPs, including Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne.

With fresh clout in the Commons, and Tony Blair's popularity on the slide, the party was presented with a unique opportunity to plug a gap in British politics and assert an alternative vision for the future.

Impressive inroads were made into Labour's heartlands at the election in May, snatching urban seats, such as Hornsey and Wood Green in north London, and strongholds in Birmingham and Solihull. The party also defied the odds to hold on to Brent East in the face of an aggressive Labour challenge.

But it failed spectacularly to execute its much-vaunted "decapitation strategy", which its campaign chiefs had confidently claimed would deliver the heads of top Tories, including Michael Howard, David Davis and Theresa May. On election night, only Tim Collins, the shadow education spokesman, fell victim to the Lib Dem pincer movement.

There were many other blunders, including the decision to sequester Kennedy on a plane bound for the regions of Britain for up to 14 hours a day. With polling showing him to be a considerable media asset, the strategy deprived it of much-needed air time and made it appear outflanked by Labour and the Conservatives on the big policy issues.

To make matters worse, Kennedy appeared badly briefed on occasion, fluffing crucial detail during the party's manifesto launch. Coming just days after the birth of his son. Kennedy, exhausted, stumbled over the local income tax policy, appearing unaware of what it was. There was some sympathy for him, but critics seized on his mistake and he was haunted by it for the rest of the campaign.

As the year drew to a close, exasperated MPs again questioned his commitment to the job, with some giving him what was in effect an ultimatum - either to raise his game, or to resign. With an invigorated and strengthened Tory party to contend with, and serious concerns about his performance among his own front bench, the new year will be a crunch time for Kennedy. In the first days of 2006, he will spend time considering how to proceed. It will either mark a new beginning for him - or, quite possibly, the beginning of the end for him as party leader.

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