At last, Kennedy has found his voice and stopped the drift into irrelevance

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The Independent Online

Charles Kennedy's critics have had a kick in the ballots. He may not yet qualify as a political "alpha male" but, with the astonishing victory at Romsey, Mr Kennedy has moved into the beta-plus category.

For the Lib Dem leader, the result could scarcely have been better. Romsey - and the Lib Dems' impressive showing elsewhere - represents a vindication of Mr Kennedy's leadership, particularly his attack on William Hague's "saloon bar" politics. Describing the Tory leader as "irresponsible" and accusing him of pandering to racism was a high-risk strategy. But it paid off, and provided a striking contrast with the early days of his leadership.

To start with, Mr Kennedy seemed to be allowing his party to drift back to irrelevance. After the yomping Ashdown era, the Liberal Democrats risked being squeezed out of the debate, and Mr Kennedy's parliamentary performances were less than assured. The Lib Dems future looked to be, in the merciless argot of Millbank, merely as a "wholly owned subsidiary" of Labour, playing Rover to Tony Blair's BMW.

All that has now changed. Paddy Ashdown's early leadership was secured by a stunning victory at the Eastbourne by-election in 1990 and the 1996 Littleborough and Saddleworth contest showed that the Lib Dems would not shrivel up and die under the fierce rays of the Sun King Blair. In the same way, Romsey proves that the Libs are still an electoral force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, the 46 seats the party won in 1997 look less like a high water mark and more like a staging post. Mr Kennedy has established his authority in his party and has helped it to regain respect and credibility in the country.

Some of the credit goes to Lord Rennard, the most formidable political operator in British politics today. Thanks may also be quietly dispensed to Labour voters switching tactically to the Lib Dems. But Mr Kennedy's bravery in taking on Mr Hague should not be discounted. In these elections, he has found his voice and a brave and liberal one it is too.

So what should Mr Kennedy do now? Stick to a winning formula must be the first advice. He has to maintain that liberal voice on issues like asylum and race. There seems every reason for him to continue to train his firepower on the Government's record on issues like the old age pension and the national health service.

Mr Kennedy has an opportunity to build a coalition of those who are disaffected with New Labour, as in the North, and the Tories, in the South and Southwest. Many of those voters are disillusioned because both parties have failed to deliver on health and education.

He should co-operate with the Government if he can get something out of it, and hold it to its promise of a referendum on proportional representation. But he cannot sacrifice the potentially huge electoral constituency that lies at his feet. If Mr Blair cannot deliver on PR, then Mr Kennedy should end his party's formal relationship with Labour. He has stood up to Mr Hague; now he must not fear to defy Mr Blair.

i>The author is a former adviser to Paddy Ashdown.