Leading article: A combative speech, but there is much work still to do

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The Independent Online

The tone of the week ought to have been one of triumph. After all, he had just led his party to its best general election result in more than 80 years, with MPs in almost every major city and councils under Liberal Democrat control across the country. Instead, his languid performance in the four months since then had precipitated a leadership crisis which resulted in the party conference being seized with convulsions over who should take it forward to the next election.

In an unscripted addition to his end-of-conference speech, Mr Kennedy turned surprisingly combative, dismissing those feeding the rumblings against him as too "full of themselves" and insisting he would continue leading the party in what he characterised as a "sensible, genuine and mature" way. That is not how many critics see his laid-back approach, but he did his best yesterday, with his grim, fixed countenance and his sternly pursed mouth to give the lie to their criticisms.

Did he do enough? He began by cataloguing the fundamental principles behind his party's philosophy - individual and civil liberties, fairness, defence of human rights, social justice and environmentalism - but this had nothing that the leader of any other party could not have said. So, quoting totemic party leaders from the past, like Asquith, Lloyd George and Roy Jenkins, on the way, he pushed a few of the usual Liberal Democrat buttons on electoral reform, calculating that it took 96,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP compared with just 26,000 for a Labour one.

He had a side-swipe too at his party's so-called modernisers - Vincent Cable, Mark Oaten and Nick Clegg, who want the Liberal Democrats to shed their high-tax, high-spending image - saying that Labour and the Tories were "two essentially conservative parties" and that Britain did not need a third one. Yet he did so while backing the two major "modernising" policies, on part-privatisation of the Royal Mail and capping EU spending, which had earlier been voted down by activists anxious to defend the party's progressive traditions. He did his best to have it both ways by insisting that the conference rows had been rooted in a political vision of right and left which was "out of date and out of time".

Such equivocation is perhaps inevitable. The job of a party leader is to keep his party together. And yesterday the leader of the Liberal Democrats gave his party much of what it wanted to hear. Warming to his cause, he launched a stinging attack on Tony Blair for acting as George Bush's international apologist over climate change and lambasting the "so-called war on terror". His criticisms of the Government's Iraq policy were well placed, and well founded, coming from a party that had opposed it from the start. He was scathing about the illiberality of the Government's response to terrorism - saying that three months' detention without charge was effectively a prison sentence by any other name, and condemning the new offence of "glorifying terrorism" as unworkable.

As an end-of-conference speech it was effective. What it could not do, and only Kennedy's actions over the coming year can succeed in doing, is to lay to rest the doubts about his leadership. Charles Kennedy is articulate and personable. But he still needs to show that he can lead his party to storm the bastions of power.