The Sketch: Simon Carr

A humble and proud Charlie prepares to turn the world on its head
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The Independent Online

There he was, the ginger man, and his ginger group. Charlie Kennedy, Liberal Democrat, giving the leader's speech. He declared himself humbled to be there. But proud as well. Humble and proud. The thing and its opposite, at the same time. Politics at its best. Or its most characteristic.

We can never say Charlie isn't frank. He's likeable, he's got a nice voice, and he's frank. But honest? He says he's not just humble and proud but he's honest as well. He says it a lot. Honest and realistic. Honesty and integrity. "Let's be honest. And honest with ourselves." (You see the distinction? Neither do I.)

But honesty requires knowledge, and the current Lib Dems, never having known power, have no idea what they'd do if they got it. Maybe this, maybe that. Maybe bomb, maybe not bomb. They simply don't know enough to do honesty.

It was, for instance, the Lib Dem peers that passed the Freedom of Information Bill through the Lords when they had it in their hands to stop it. Transparency, integrity, and the most restrictive information act in the Western world. Where does the honesty part come in again?

"We will never. Ever. Let the terrorists triumph." What, really never? Instead of letting them triumph nearly all the time? Is Mr Kennedy proposing turning the whole world order upside down? Maybe it'll do that by itself.

He went on. We had to address the causes of hatred. "Ignorance, poverty, prejudice." You might wonder whether he'd be – what's the word? – honest enough to put it quite like that in Tehran.

And there's another thing. Why hadn't we got world-class schools and hospitals? Eh? Why hadn't we got the cleanest streets in the world? Answer came there none. That was odd for a party claiming to be the effective opposition. Especially one where the leader had just said success would lie in "talking about solutions not problems".

But here was the underlying theme of the conference. With the Tory cannibals filing their teeth for one final orgiastic, members-only feast, the Lib Dems feel they can win by merely surviving.

Mr Kennedy had learnt from the last election how to be the authentic opposition. Addressing aspirations not attitudes was one thing. That'd work.

It's no good addressing attitudes. Everyone knows that. Don't they? They do now. And, climactically, "Don't get bogged down in left-versus-right arguments!"

It's a triumph for Tony Blair. Mr Kennedy has been sucked into the radical centre, pursuing the What Works principle that allows more or less anything. It's the end of ideology, it's the end, really, of principle. Mr Kennedy told his troops they were preparing to abandon their principles. He said: "We have to remain principled." That only means one thing. "Of course private initiatives have a place in public services," he said. He demanded fewer bureaucrats (that is, public servants) in the health service. His first priority was not "the interests of the producer". And he named four sources of public service funding as "taxes, tuition fees, prescription charges and private insurance".

You can see he'd want to avoid getting bogged down in left-versus-right arguments. You always do that when you shift to the right. Honestly.