The Week in Politics: Elections could justify Kennedy's waiting game

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The leader is hanging on to his job even though his stance on Iraq has caused ructions in his own party. He seems to have recovered from a recent health scare, but the gossip is that he will stand down after the next general election.

The leader is hanging on to his job even though his stance on Iraq has caused ructions in his own party. He seems to have recovered from a recent health scare, but the gossip is that he will stand down after the next general election.

No, for once I am not talking about Tony Blair. Due to popular demand from readers of this column, I am writing about Charles Kennedy. Like many scribes in the Westminster village, I often leave the Liberal Democrats out of the script. So this week I have been checking them out.

The elections for the European Parliament, local authorities and London Mayor on 10 June have been rightly billed as a big test for Mr Blair and Michael Howard. But they are also a big challenge for Mr Kennedy. He has quietly set his party the task of making real inroads in Labour's city strongholds, in the same way as it invaded Tory territory at the last general election.

It could happen. There are local elections in the 36 metropolitan districts and, because of new boundaries, all the seats are up for grabs instead of the usual third, so big changes are possible. We may have a two-and-a-half party system at Westminster, but at local level three-party politics is alive and kicking. Mr Kennedy's party has 4,500 councillors, fewer than Labour's 7,200 or the Tories' 7,700, but is very good at targeting its slender resources.

The two main parties are privately fretting about the Liberal Democrats. Labour's feedback from the doorsteps suggests Mr Kennedy stands to garner protest votes over Iraq from AB1 professionals and the middle classes.

The Tories fear they will not benefit from the problems in Iraq because they backed the war. To show they are fit for national government, they are desperate to regain ground in the cities outside London - where, as in Scotland and Wales, they have almost disappeared.

Mr Howard's party has no councillors in Manchester or Newcastle, where the Liberal Democrats could give Labour a run for its money, or Liberal-run Liverpool. In Labour-controlled Sheffield the Tories have one councillor and the Liberal Democrats should regain it. They could spoil the party in some cities the Tories should win, such as Birmingham.

The Liberal Democrats should pick up two or three more seats in the European Parliament, while Labour and the Tories may struggle to do so because the number of UK seats has been cut from 87 to 78.

In London, the Tories' Steve Norris appears to be the main threat to Ken Livingstone. But we shouldn't rule out a late surge by Simon Hughes - if he can communicate the complicated message that, under the "second preference" voting system, he has the best chance of beating Mr Livingstone. Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' elections guru, placed three bets last September: that his party would win the Brent East by-election, Mr Howard would soon be Tory leader and Mr Hughes would become London Mayor. I wouldn't bet against Lord Rennard.

Mr Kennedy, who is spending three days a week campaigning outside London, is back on form and getting a good buzz, particularly from Muslim voters, whose traditional loyalty to Labour has been stretched to breaking point by Iraq. His pledge to abolish the council tax plays well. He has invented his own form of "market testing": when he visits a market, do the shoppers look him in the eye and engage, or do they suddenly stare at a bunch of stale bananas? He is running well ahead of the bananas.

That week of intense, sometimes cruel, media scrutiny when he missed the Budget debate in March has left some bruises. Labour and the Tories were used to media meltdowns but Britain's third party was not and under pressure its relative inexperience became apparent.

In the end, Mr Kennedy came through. His recovery after his sweaty speech in Southport convinced the media sceptics that it was a stomach bug, and not the booze. But the episode lifted the lid on simmering discontent within his party. Some of his own MPs doubted Mr Kennedy's commitment. I suspect he had to look in the mirror, just as he did when Paddy Ashdown resigned in 1999, and ask himself: "Do I really want this job?"

Although the doubts have now been settled, there remains an undercurrent of concern. Some of his MPs wonder whether the party missed an historic opportunity when the Tories were in turmoil under Iain Duncan Smith. Perhaps the more muscular Mr Ashdown would have somehow heaved it into position as the "real opposition" to Labour. The cautious Mr Kennedy didn't put his foot on the accelerator, the Tories dumped Mr Duncan Smith and recovered under Mr Howard.

It is a tempting analysis, but I am not so sure. One of Mr Kennedy's favourite sayings is that "politics is a long game". The only way to supplant the Tories is in the ballot box, and that will indeed take a long time. It won't be accomplished at the next general election, but progress in the Labour-dominated cities would be another milestone. Next month's elections are crucial because the party's parliamentary gains are often built on the platform of council seats.

A long game requires good judgment. Mr Kennedy has shown that on Iraq. His opposition to the war worried some senior colleagues but has been vindicated. His decision to boycott the Butler inquiry into the pre-war intelligence was belatedly copied by the Tories. I expect both Labour and the Tories to turn their guns on Mr Kennedy and his party pretty soon.

Although we in the media often ignore the Liberal Democrats, they stay in the game and bounce back when you think they have vanished. I have a feeling "Champagne Charlie" will have every right to crack open a bottle after 10 June.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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