CHARLES KENNEDY has held talks with Tony Blair to discuss further co-operation between the his party and Labour, the Liberal Democrat leader revealed yesterday. In a 45-minute meeting at Downing Street 10 days ago, the two leaders agreed to continue the dialogue the Prime Minister established with Paddy Ashdown.
The private meeting will alarm Liberal Democrat activists opposed to close links with Labour. They had forced Mr Kennedy to harden his line on the issue during the leadership election.
Mr Blair and Mr Kennedy agreed to hold a further discussion about the future of Lib-Lab relations after the party conference season, which begins tomorrow when the Liberal Democrats meet in Harrogate.
Mr Kennedy told The Independent his meeting with the Prime Minister was a "personal and political chat" which was "relaxed and informal". He said they had become "social friends" after both entering the Commons in 1983, "although we have not seen much of each other since he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994". Mr Kennedy assured Mr Blair he would maintain Mr Ashdown's policy of "constructive opposition" towards Labour, and the Liberal Democrats would continue to serve on the joint cabinet committee that discusses constitutional reform. He also told the Prime Minister there was little appetite in his party for the committee "to get much beyond the constitutional reform agenda".
But the Liberal Democrat leader said that he would not rule out extending the cabinet committee's remit if Mr Blair made specific proposals. Some Blair advisers want to extend its work to health, education and pensions.
"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," said Mr Kennedy. "But what I would do first is to talk to my colleagues' about it."
Mr Ashdown was criticised by some of his MPs for keeping them in the dark about his cosy chats with Mr Blair about Lib-Lab relations. Without criticising his predecessor, Mr Kennedy said: "My style is a fairly collegiate style. That is my approach to politics and life generally."
Mr Kennedy played down the idea that his party will be a different animal with him as leader. "There is no fundamental difference in terms of how the party operates or how we go about things. But is there a difference in temperament and style? Yes, of course there is. We are different."
He believed his relationship with Mr Blair "won't have the same kind of chemistry" as Mr Ashdown's. "I am a different human being. I know Tony Blair in a completely different way to Paddy. I suspect that Tony Blair and myself could discuss the relative merits of individual David Bowie tracks. I doubt that Paddy and Tony Blair could have that discussion."
The Liberal Democrat leader dismissed fears that maintaining close links with Labour will blunt his party's attacks on the Government. "We will be critical where we think the Government is falling short," he said. "We are riding two horses, doing it quite successfully." Mr Kennedy wants it to be "a more socially progressive party than Labour" and will aim to exploit concern in Labour's traditional heartlands about the Government's performance, notably over social exclusion. But he says adamantly: "This is not about positioning ourselves as a `Left of Labour Party'. That is a political cul-de-sac."
Mr Kennedy, 39, hopes to play a part in ensuring that people "reconnect with politics". He said: "The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has two million members, many more times than all the political parties put together. People like me have got to start asking why."
He wants to give the party's radical policies on the environment a higher profile, as well as harrying the Government on constitutional reform and demanding proportional representation.
Intriguingly, Mr Kennedy will pursue "a more unambiguously pro-European stance" and is undeterred that this might push back Liberal Democrat supporters back into the Tories' arms. "You always do better in life if you stick to your principles," he said. Many activists will complain in Harrogate that the party pulled its punches in the June Euro elections. "I tend to agree," he said, in a veiled criticism of Mr Ashdown.
Mr Kennedy admitted his "objective number one" is to hold on to the 46 Commons seats the party won in 1997 and then build on that. "I am under no illusions as to the scale of that task."
The quick-witted Mr Kennedy, unkindly dubbed "Chat Show Charlie" by his critics for his appearances on non-political TV programmes, insisted he would not become "buttoned up" now that he is a party leader.
"I think you have to be yourself. There is no point in trying to pretend you are changing into something you are not. People would see through it in 10 seconds dead. I am going to be myself." But whether he likes it or not, his life has changed since he was elected leader last month. A sobering moment for the crofter's son who grew up in the Highlands came when he was summoned to the rehearsal for the ceremony at which he would be made a privy councillor.
Then his girlfriend Sarah Gurling, who works in public relations, urged him to buy a smart black coat so he does not "do a Michael Foot" and turn up at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday wearing a donkey jacket. Mr Kennedy rejected a request to reappear on BBC TV's Have I Got News For You. He told Ian Hislop,one of the team captains, that the Liberal Democrats' gain was the programme's loss.
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