Charles Kennedy and the fear that the Lib Dems could miss their moment

There are mutterings, but they have not reached critical mass, and no one has been brave enough to voice them in public
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The Independent Online

Deep in the recesses of the third party's psyche, there is a recurrent dream. It envisages that the Labour government has begun an irreversible process, however long drawn out, of electoral decline, but that the Conservatives, led by a man whose weaknesses are still to be exposed in the harsh light of a national election campaign, are unable to seize the moment. Instead, as the Tories fatally falter on the eve of the decisive battle, the Liberal Democrats surge ahead, supplanting them as the main Opposition party. Perhaps not in seats, but at least in share of the national vote: the breakthrough, finally, that the Liberals have been waiting for more than a half a century.

This isn't something Charles Kennedy goes round talking about, even in private. The least hubristic and vainglorious of politicians, he may not even - sensibly - believe in it. But those around him who do, clothe the dream in some hard practicalities. They talk of the electoral "ground war" based on the tactical voting and ruthlessly targeted local campaigning which has given the party's elections specialist Lord Rennard a deserved reputation as perhaps the most brilliant of his breed in any party. And they talk of the "air war" that begins as soon as the election is called and gives the Liberal Democrats an immediate statutory access to the broadcast media denied it at other times. If Kennedy and his colleagues can win the first few days of the air war, the argument goes, then the unthinkable could happen. The hopes of coming second cherished by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 and 1987 could finally come true -though this time it would be the Tories and not Labour who would be squeezed into third place.

The reality that the dream extends is plain to see in the poll numbers. The Lib Dems are comfortably over 20 per cent, well over anything the party achieved mid-term in the last Parliament. Given that - when the Labour vote proved stubbornly robust - they went on to score more seats than at any time since 1929, why shouldn't they break through this time?

Indeed the figures are striking enough to make it, on the face of it, rather odd that anyone within the party should be be once again muttering complaints about the Kennedy leadership. Particularly since the chief complaint, that Kennedy isn't hyperactive, forthright or visible enough, surfaced in the last parliament and was then confounded by his electoral success.

There are mutterings nonetheless. But they have certainly not reached critical mass; and its striking that no one has been brave enough to voice them in public. Nor are they likely to while the party stays above the 20 per cent mark -as it has been, remarkably, for over a year. Some of them focus on details, such as the leader's undoubtedly mistaken decision not to turn up in the Commons for the Chancellor's all important euro statement last month.

But the larger anxiety, I think, is a latent fear that the Liberal Democrats, for all the good auspices, could yet miss their moment. What if those impressive numbers owe more to the loss of support from the other two parties - particularly Labour - than to the actual appeal of a party whose hour should now have come, not least because of the disappointed hopes of quite a broad spectrum of Labour supporters. And what if they start to recede if politics reverts, as it might, to an old fashioned brawl between the two major parties?

The first point to make is that this discussion is almost entirely confined within the party, and has yet to make an impact in the wider country, where the view of Kennedy remains, by and large, warmly favourable. The second is that he can quite easily get out of these supposed problems. It wasn't that easy to handle the war itself: patriotically to back British troops after having opposed, from a principled position, the invasion of Iraq. And the excoriation heaped on him was hardly fair. But it may be time for him to raise his game beyond the immediate row over dossiers, especially if this results, as it may or may not do, in an unedifying no-score draw.

He is fully entitled to point out that the absence of WMD so far vindicates the Liberal Democrat stance. But as an opponent of the war he is uniquely qualified among party leaders to lift his sights to the future, becoming the chief prodder and critic of a government still deeply vulnerable on the manifest weaknesses so far of reconstruction in post-war Iraq. In the real world, as he must know, this matters a great deal more than whether Tony Blair decides to appear before a Commons Select Committee no Prime Minister has ever given evidence to before.

Mr Kennedy's collegiate style has helped to preserve an appearance of unity increasingly lacking in the other two parties. But such are the demands of modern politics that he needs to be seen to lead as well as lead. A forceful reshuffle would achieve just that. The hungry and clever young men of the party, the David Lawses, the Steve Webbs, the Ed Daveys, need to be brought on - especially in the area of public services such as health and education, where the current incumbents have a distinctly unliberal and producerist edge. This must take place before the party conference - a spate of speculation during conference itself would, perversely, make such a reshuffle more difficult to carry out.

He also needs to embody the strengths of the party more forcefully than at present. The talented and experienced Lib Dems in the Lords, for example, have caused the Government real trouble where it's needed most - on its more illiberal policies and, most recently, on the near sell-out to Rupert Murdoch in the Communications Bill. But there are times when the whole seems less than the sum of its parts.

And he needs to offer some clarity where previously there has been obscurity. The contradiction in the Lib Dems is that no party has more policies, yet you don't always know what they stand for. He is soon to do things that will help - match the party's localism with a statement on spending plans outlining much lighter government at the centre. All of which makes it, paradoxically, easier to sustain a crucial role of being the conscience of the left. And he will back a referendum on the European convention - sensible in electoral terms, since it should give him cover to articulate the strongly pro-European view convictions he undoubtedly holds.

Charles Kennedy is one of the most personally likeable, engaging and rounded of politicians. He has shown judgement of a very high order at a number of critical moments since, back in 1983 when the SDP split, he made the call in favour of Roy Jenkins against David Owen. He saw - at just the right moment - that Paddy Ashdown's project of alignment with Labour had had its day. He correctly resisted pressure from within his circle to oppose the war in Afghanistan, just as he was correct to become the only party leader voicing the widespread opposition to the war in Iraq. All he needs to do now is show he has the confidence and drive that his closest allies insist he has never lost.