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It's hard being one man in a two-horse race

Pot, peace and promiscuity," I was told by one senior Liberal Democrat in jokey pre-conference mood, would be the themes of Charles Kennedy's first speech as leader to his party conference this week.

Well, Mr Kennedy has made some fairly spirited attacks on the Government's moralising, "control freak" tendencies. And he has also made a so far vain attempt to kick-start a grown-up debate about drugs. But he is unlikely to want to see his key messages hidden behind a smoke-screen of dopey headlines. No, those who know tell me that Charles will pay ritual obeisance to Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown, and stress Europe, the environment and his deep personal commitment to social justice instead. There will be wit as well, and all delivered by a man with a PhD in political rhetoric.

The fear, however, is that Mr Kennedy will pass up the opportunity to tell his activists - and the rest of us - just a little more about the central strategic question that continues to worry them and was left frustratingly unresolved by the long leadership campaign this summer - the traditional Liberal dilemma of relations with the Labour Party, once called "realignment", and nowadays dressed up in the language of "the Project". It continues to gnaw away at the self-confidence of the party and will prove a damaging distraction at least until the next election.

Had, say, the evangelical Simon Hughes beaten Charles Kennedy and been ready to deliver his sermon this week, we would know exactly where we stood - there would be no more co-operation with Labour, full stop. The speculation would cease, the campaigning would start.

Indeed, the performance of the various "anti-Project" candidates in the leadership election taken as a whole showed that there was a majority among party members against extending Lib-Laberry to say, education or health policy. And Charles Kennedy, elected on the fourth round of an exhaustive ballot, sometimes - but only sometimes - seems to recognise this. He said of co-operation last week that "there is not much of a mood to take it further".

But in an interview with the Independent yesterday, Mr Kennedy seemed more open-minded: "It is only responsible politics for politicians to respond constructively and in a mature way to any overtures we might get from any other party leader." Mr Kennedy has enjoyed a chat with Tony Blair at Downing Street, and young Charlie says that "I suspect that Tony Blair and myself could discuss the relative merits of individual David Bowie tracks".

What? Not early legislation on proportional representation for local government? Is Charles giving Tony hell on the Jenkins Report or being bamboozled by the star man in the sky? The activists yearn for Kennedy to tell them - unequivocally - where on earth they are headed. Of course, for the other parties' leaders this is not a problem. A conference speech pretty much boils down to a declaration of how, why and when they are going to win the next election. No nonsense about asking for the balance of power, or calibrating whether you were closer to this party or that, or whether this, that or the other is negotiable.

For the leader of the third party, things are trickier. And the record on the vision thing is not good. Those with long memories recall Paddy Ashdown's first conference speech in 1988, entitled "The Path Ahead", in which he saw a "very exciting journey" ahead. He seemed to suggest that the Social and Liberal Democrats would replace Labour, after it had lost the next general election, (which came in 1992), which would "certainly finish off the Labour Party".

He didn't, of course, foresee Tony Blair, who did the job instead. Those with still longer memories will think of David Steel's debut in 1976 when he promised a "bumpy ride" and told the Liberal Assembly in Llandudno: "I do not expect to lead just a nice debating society. We shall probably have - at least temporarily - to share power with somebody else to bring about the changes we seek. We must be bold enough to deploy our coalition case positively." Bold or not, the coalition never arrived.

Perhaps Steel and Ashdown can be excused, though, because they both found their party in one of its periodic near-death experiences. Steel became leader in the wake of the Thorpe affair, when Liberals were coming fourth to the National Front in local elections. Ashdown inherited the wreckage of the Alliance and was soon beaten into a poor fourth by the Greens in the 1989 Euro-elections. There may have been a place for soaring rhetoric in such circumstances - if all you have to offer is hope then perhaps you should OD on it.

Kennedy's inheritance, though, is much more benign. There are fragilities, as the party's mediocre showing in the national polls reveals. But Charlie Kennedy at least can count on some critical mass for his party, which will for the first time in decades this year hear a speech from a serving minister of the crown, Jim Wallace, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland.

So what's wrong with "business as usual"? Why should Kennedy violate his instincts, and cut off his political options? Simply because, sooner or later, he will have to - and both he and his audience know it. Mr Kennedy gave the game away when he said that "we will be critical where we think the Government is falling short. We are riding two horses, doing it quite successfully".

Riding two horses, even for as supple a figure as Mr Kennedy, is a tough task. The whole concept of "constructive opposition" is inherently unstable. Mr Kennedy tells the Independent, for example, that he has no time for "yah-boo politics" and that Tony Blair is a "social friend"; but he tells the party magazine Informed: "One of the most sickening sights since the general election was the spectacle of Tony Blair and his colleagues living it up at a No 10 party for the rich and famous on the day that Parliament cut benefits to single mothers." Tony Blair has shown on occasion an intense irritation with aspects of "constructive opposition".

And what happens when the constitutional agenda runs out of steam? How can you talk about, say, education without discussing Gordon Brown's budgets? And how long will it be before anyone notices that the Liberal Democrats attack New as well as old Labour in the town halls?

Mr Kennedy will have three audiences this week - his activists, his voters and his friend Tony Blair. They will all be interested in seeing if he falls off his horses. "Pot, peace and promiscuity" might be easier, after all.

Sean O'Grady is a former adviser to Paddy Ashdown.