Who wants to be a Prime Minister? Just ask our friend Chatshow Charlie

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Yesterday's pre-lunch session was billed as a question and answer event with Charles Kennedy. But it was introduced by the conference chairman as "Who Wants to be a Prime Minister?" - after the style of the television quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Notwithstanding the champagne corks that are popping around the hotel bars, in the aftermath of the Brent East by-election victory, Mr Kennedy positively swaggered, rather than staggered, on to the conference set.

The chairman suggested that he would have two chances to "phone a friend" - those contacts would be Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith.

His "ask the audience" help was provided by John Beanse, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mr Duncan Smith's Chingford and Woodford Green constituency at the 2001 election. Mr Beanse apologised for not unseating the Tory leader, before asking a question about voter apathy.

Mr Kennedy thanked him for the "strategic decision" to lose the seat, which had thereby enabled Mr Duncan Smith to become Tory leader - thus giving Liberal Democrats the chance to overtake the Tories. This also gave Mr Kennedy the opportunity to remind us of the Duncan Smith gaffe, suggesting that the Liberal Democrats had made a "strategic error" in winning Brent East.

Mr Kennedy was at his best - more Chatshow Charlie than Champagne Charlie. The jokes, however, have now gone as destiny beckons. He got down to business by stripping off his jacket and showing off a gaudy Liberal Democrat trademark yellow lining.

"Get 'em off" urged someone in the audience, gagging to see whether his boxer shorts might also be in the party colours. "I know we're a Liberal party but we're not that liberal," he protested.

References to "party", however, have little to do with politics this week. The days of muesli and elderberry wine are over. English's seafood restaurant in Brighton is full of Liberal Democrats quaffing champagne and oysters while preparing for government. This is now one big party - in every sense of the word. And although some of them are gloating and smug, they are entitled to their victory parade.

Mr Kennedy took questions on Iraq, identity cards, asylum-seekers and public services. But he got stuck when asked to name his favourite Pop Idol and Fame Academy contestants. He had used up all his lifelines. In the end he went for the David Bowie lookalike in Fame Academy because Bowie was one of his heroes. "The biggest perk of being the leader of the Liberal Democrats is that you get to meet people like David Bowie - a liberal, if not a Liberal Democrat," he said.

The £1m final question was whether by 2006, a century after the 1906 general election landslide victory by Lloyd George's Liberal Party, he might be in government. Anxious not to overdo the "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" line, Mr Kennedy said that while he believed in planning well ahead for a good party, he preferred to look at the history books rather than gaze at the crystal ball.

We'll have to wait until after the break - sorry, I mean after the election - to find out whether this was the right answer. Or will it all end up, in the words of the Bowie song, as "Ashes to Ashes"?

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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