Kennedy's test is to keep up the PR pressure

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A few years ago a doctor who came from a famous Scottish rugby family had his practice on the Kyle of Lochalsh, just across the ferry from Skye. One day he was visited by a young man with red hair who was smoking cigarettes vigorously. The doctor took him to be a drugs salesman (a vendor who plied his trade with medical practitioners rather than on the streets of Edinburgh or Glasgow). He was shocked by the number of cigarettes being put away by a representative, as he thought, of our great international drug companies, which relieve so much suffering and cost the taxpayer so much money. He may even have delivered a short homily on the subject of smoking.

It soon became apparent that he had misapprehended his visitor's purpose. He was not selling drugs. He was canvassing the doctor's support in the interest of the Social Democratic Party. His name was Charles Kennedy and, though he did not gain the vote of the good doctor - a staunch Conservative - he won the seat.

He was only 23. He has been in the House ever since. People tend to forget not so much how young Mr Kennedy is as how long he has been around. He has as much parliamentary experience as Mr Tony Blair and six years more than Mr William Hague.

True, he does not fill the Chamber. But, in these days of New Labour indifference and wall-to-wall coverage on BBC digital television, who does? Well, there is Mr Blair, ex officio and for no other reason. There is Sir Edward Heath, simply because he may be rude about Lady Thatcher, Mr Hague or both. And there is Mr Tony Benn, who has developed into a constitutional expert (as opposed to some of the imposters bearing that title who pop up occasionally on our television screens) and who gives Mr Blair a hard time. That is about all. It is difficult to think of anyone else offhand or even after a quarter of an hour's deep contemplation.

But Mr Kennedy, like most Highlanders and Islanders, can speak well when he makes the effort. So also can Mr Hague, who puts in endless endeavour, and it has not done Mr Hague much good. What we can be certain of is that Mr Kennedy will not find himself the subject of quite such humiliating stories as appeared last Friday about Mr Hague. He may or may not get married. That is his own affair. But he is not going to be "relaunched" by a style consultant, by the estimable Miss Jane Bonham-Carter or by anyone else.

Mr Kennedy is his own man. He campaigned for the leadership on the basis that he was "a fully paid-up member of the human race". The phrase was originally mine. I first used it, in what we old journalists have been brought up to call another Sunday newspaper, of Lord (as he then wasn't) Hattersley. I later applied it to Mr Kenneth Clarke. Mr Kennedy has now taken to applying it to himself without acknowledgement. I do not complain. If I were paid a fee, extracted by, say, the Performing Right Society, for every occasion on which "the People's Party", "young fogeys" and "the chattering classes" had been used, I should be a wealthy man by now.

The chief complaint about Mr Kennedy is that he is "lazy". It has always struck me as curious how charges of laziness attach themselves to some politicians but not to others, irrespective of what the person in question has accomplished. Lord Jenkins was always being accused of being lazy. But how could he have been called that when he had already written a small shelf of books and countless articles, and successfully occupied several offices of state? Or, as Aneurin Bevan once remarked: "Roy lazy? How could a boy from Abersychan end up with an accent like that and be called lazy?"

Mr Kennedy's output is admittedly not comparable to that of Lord Jenkins at the same age. But then, he has never claimed to be either a political writer or - what is a very different matter - a maker of political policy. He is something else: a natural politician. Paddy Ashdown was not one. Nor was Jo Grimond. Mr Kennedy's fellow-Scot David Steel was a natural politician too. He inspired the formation of the SDP and cobbled together the Lib-Lab pact with James Callaghan.

For a time, the Liberals were persons of pomp and power, or thought themselves so. Mr John Pardoe would turn up for economic consultations with Lord Healey, much to the latter's irritation. But Lord Steel could not force the one change which his party really wanted: proportional representation, not in parliamentary elections (that was a lost cause from the beginning), but in elections to the European Parliament. Jim did nothing. To this extent, the Lib-Lab pact was a failure from the Liberal point of view.

Mr Blair's majority is so enormous that he has no need of an agreement of any kind with the Liberal Democrats. He can do much as he likes, subject only to the European Court and to the UK courts applying judicial review and, after autumn 2000, the Human Rights Act. And yet Mr Blair entered into negotiations with Mr Ashdown about co-operation in constitutional and other matters. On the whole, these negotiations were successful. They were certainly beneficial to Mr Blair; less so, perhaps, to Mr Ashdown.

It was not a cynical move by Mr Blair, or not entirely so. There is no doubt that he believes vaguely in a new, non-confrontational style of politics and in a radical alliance which will keep the Conservatives out of office in the new millennium. At the same time it was convenient for him when the Liberal Democrats revealed a hitherto undisclosed enthusiasm for the closed party list in European elections and marched obediently through the lobbies with Mr Jack Straw in support of the power of the central committee. Proportional representation of varying sorts in Scotland, Wales and Europe would have been introduced by the Government irrespective of Mr Ashdown's co-operation with Mr Blair.

Now here is the curious thing: from the Liberal Democrats' aspect, PR has proved something of a flop. In Scotland they play a somewhat inglorious second fiddle to Labour, because they want a share of power rather than because they did well in the election; in Wales the star of the Assembly is Plaid Cymru; while in Europe it was the Conservatives who discomfited Labour and saved Mr Hague's bacon for the time being. PR, the Liberal holy grail for as long as anyone can remember, subject of innumerable pamphlets, endless letters to the press from Enid Lakeman, has turned out to have been made of plastic all the time and to be available freely now at Tesco.

This will not stop the Liberal Democrats from asking for it in parliamentary elections as well. They will be quite right too. Despite this year's disappointments, the alternative vote with a top-up proposed by Lord Jenkins in his excellent report will certainly give them more than the 46 seats they have now. Mr Blair is most unlikely to give it to them. He is equally unlikely to hold the referendum on the voting system promised in the manifesto.

Here is a precise issue and a clear test of Mr Kennedy's leadership. Unless Mr Blair keeps his word, he should announce in his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference at Harrogate that all bets are off. I shall be back, God willing, for that conference. I was about to add "God help us". But this year's gathering looks like being more interesting than any has been for a long time.

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