The invisible man of British politics

Can you think of a single interesting thought, resonant phrase or intriguing speech in the past five years?
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For two of the biggest parliamentary events of the past year - the announcement on the euro and this week's budget - Charles Kennedy has been ill. It's tempting to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to miss one of the most significant events in town is a misfortune, but two begins to look like carelessness. You might reply: so what? We all get ill sometimes. Yes, but these disappearing acts are significant because they are symbolic of a wider truth. Kennedy has been - at best - semi-engaged with British political life since he became Lib Dem leader.

Britain needs the Liberal Democrats. We need a party committed to telling the truth about tax: that if we want European-quality public services we need to pay European-sized sums to the Exchequer. We need a party shouting that asylum-seekers are not a cancerous menace to our civilisation but desperate, tyrannised people who will enrich our country if we give them the chance. We need a party that points out how Britain will suffer damaged competitiveness and slashed political influence while we stay isolated from the euro.

An articulate Lib Dem leader can be one of the most exciting forces in British politics, because he (or she) is freed from the constant competition for the middle ground that afflicts the main parties. Leaders of the third party are free to be imaginative, to push at the boundaries of public opinion, to go boldly where no mainstream politician has gone before. So it is with real sadness that we turn to Charles Kennedy's record. Can you think of a single interesting thought, resonant phrase or intriguing speech in the past five years? Has he nudged at public opinion a single time?

I disagree with Kennedy on the war, but it was extremely important for our democracy that one of our parties should take a strong, clear line against the conflict. Yet even here - his biggest achievement - Kennedy was pretty inexpertly surfing on a huge wave. He was a follower, not a leader. He only arranged to speak at the massive anti-war rally last year after a newspaper prominently asked why he wasn't planning to attend.

And once the immediate conflict was over, why did he disappear? Why didn't he start banging away about a transition to democracy in Iraq, or the rights of Iraqi women - anything, in fact? These could have been Kennedy's issues, just as Paddy Ashdown placed the issue of ground troops in Kosovo on the political agenda. Instead, alas, they were nobody's issues, and Kennedy receded back into the drawing rooms of Westminster.

Part of Kennedy's problem stems from the fact there are two possible ambitions for the Lib Dems today, and they are not compatible. The first option is clear: the party can try to supplant the Tories as the official opposition. This is not necessarily an idle dream. A YouGov poll in December 2002 found that 51per cent of the electorate thought the Lib Dems were "likely to overtake the Tories in the next five years", and only 44 per cent thought this "unlikely". This view has receded since Michael Howard became Tory leader, but not entirely. Most of the possible successors to Howard - who will inevitably lose the next election - are as bizarre as IDS.

There is a problem, however, with this path. The paradox of the Lib Dems is that if they want to make electoral gains, they can only do so from the right of Labour, yet most of their activists, their MPs and their supporters in the media viscerally oppose Blair from the left. The Lib Dems cannot become the official opposition by trying to mop up disaffected left-wing votes. The reason for this is boring but important: it lies in the electoral arithmetic. In the 2001 election there were 19 seats which would have gone to the Lib Dems if only there had been a 5 per cent swing in their direction. Fifteen of those seats were Tory. Only four were Labour.

There is a right-wing Liberal tradition for Kennedy to draw on, if he wanted to. Jo Grimond, the Liberal leader from 1956 to 1967, seems now, if you read his speeches, like a proto-Thatcherite. He was calling for the sale of council houses back in the 1950s. While Maggie served in Edward Heath's corporatist government, Grimond was calling for slashed taxes, privatisations and "an end to the socialists' pessimism about the future of this country".

This tradition still exists in the Lib Dem parliamentary party today. David Laws, Paddy Ashdown's successor as MP for Yeovil, is the best exponent of this Liberalism. Laws has argued that the Lib Dems need to be a party "which instinctively distrusts the state", mocks "the wish-lists of Luddite trade union leaders" and advocates a "social insurance system of health provision" to break up the NHS. If the Lib Dems are serious about becoming the replacement for the Conservatives, this is the direction they will have to move in

I do not think it will happen. This is not what we need the Lib Dems for. British politics has more than enough right-wingers, and few of the Lib Dem activists I know (yes, I know how sad that statement is) would pour their energy into sustaining a party of the right. The road to supplanting the Tories - even if it were possible - would be a journey into inauthentic mimicry.

There is a second option for the Lib Dems. They could decide to be a radical, progressive party of ideas, one that adopts marginal causes and pushes them into the political mainstream. Paddy Ashdown trumpeted British intervention in the Balkan catastrophe and independence for the Bank of England; through constant plugging, they both became a political reality.

Imagine how Kennedy could change the debate on, say, drugs by advocating the end of prohibition (a policy backed even by The Telegraph when it comes to cannabis). If that doesn't appeal to him, he could advocate a system of universal child care. We can all think of a few exciting policy areas - why can't he?

There is a central existential question any Lib Dem leader needs to answer: Does he want merely to watch his place in the polls grow, in the hope that somewhere, decades from now, the Lib Dems will eclipse one of the other parties? Or does he want to seize and remould a handful of key issues in British politics?

Many Lib Dem insiders are surprisingly relaxed about Kennedy's indecision. They argue that Kennedy's current studied indifference and inactivity is itself a successful political tactic. Deliberate fuzziness allows voters to project whatever they like onto Kennedy's rosy ginger chops. Why risk alienating voters with concrete positions when the electorate can be wooed instead by his vague, benevolent mood-music, or even by his absence?

In its favour, this approach seems to be working in nakedly electoral terms. Under Kennedy, the party's parliamentary representation is higher than at any time since 1929.

But this seat-watching, poll-supping short-termism displays a monumental poverty of aspiration. The Lib Dems seem more interested in gaining a handful of extra seats in Westminster than in actually shaping our political discourse.

Are they really happy simply being the "None of the Above" party, a collection of the disillusioned and the never-illusioned? Are they content being led by the Invisible Man of British politics? The Lib Dems could be so much more but not, it seems, with Charles Kennedy in charge.