Beware the Lib Dem soft sell

IT'S easy to be seduced by Liberal Democrat euphoria at their annual conference. This year, the hard sell that the new Jerusalem in appearing on the horizon has been greater than ever.

IT'S easy to be seduced by Liberal Democrat euphoria at their annual conference. This year, the hard sell that the new Jerusalem in appearing on the horizon has been greater than ever.

Nobody has been rash enough to echo the infamous words of then Liberal leader David Steel at a previous conference that delegates should go back to their constituencies "and prepare for government."

And when conference committee chairman Baroness Barker tried to play the game "who wants to be prime minister," it fell like a lead balloon, with Charles Kennedy clearly embarrassed.

Yet Brighton has been full of wild young zealots and hardened campaigners once again believing that great times are ahead for the party.

Whoever in the Labour Party decided to schedule the Brent East by-election for just before the start of the Liberal Democrat conference is probably now residing in a basement in Westminster, bound in a straight jacket.

Admittedly, the Lib Dems seemed to have no realistic chance of winning. But the triumph of Sarah Teather in Brent East has given the Lib Dems a massive publicity coup that one Rupert Murdoch owned Labour-supporting newspaper decided to mount a ferocious personal attack on Charles Kennedy during the conference.

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Branding him Red Kennedy and making accusation about his lifestyle, the paper was making a desperate attempt to warn traditional Labour voters not to fall for what it called ultras-left and dangerous pro-Europe Lib Dems.

The Tories have tried the same tactic. Leader Iain Duncan Smith, desperate to stop the haemorrhaging of votes to the Lib Dems, warned Conservative voters not to be beguiled by Charles Clarke's centrist soft sell.

Perhaps it is an indication of the success of Mr Kennedy that he is now under attack from left and right for being too stream. If I was him, I'd be honoured to receive such attention.

As I wrote last week, it would be an extreme optimist to believe Sarah Teather will retain Brent East at the General Election.

Lib Dems might be making a pitch for Labour votes, but Brent East is not a seat with either a soft left or woolly-minded electorate.

True, the voters, largely Irish and black and Asian minority ethnics, hated the Iraqi war. They were also fed up with the poorly performing Brent council, whose level of public service provision is not rated highly.

There are, however, a number of Labour seats that the Lib Dems could win at the next election. In London, Islington South is a top target and they have their eyes on constituencies in Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds.

In the East of England, a number of MPs have cause to be worried at the Lib Dem policy of aggressive targeting. I believe it would be a miracle if Claire Ward holds Watford. The Lib Dems stormed to victory in the directly elected mayoral contest, the party has most councillors, and the Tory vote has collapsed in the borough.

Add to this the campaigning skills of parliamentary candidate Sal Brinton – daughter of a former Tory MP – and you have the classic Liberal Democrat winning formula.

The Lib Dems are convinced they will unseat Education Secretary Charles Clarke in Norwich South and are busily recruiting and campaiging in the University of East Anglia, located in the constituency, against top up fees.

Cambridge is also a definite target, again made more probable because of top up fees, while St Albans could become a three way marginal between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems.

The Conservatives should not be smug. Many of their leading politicians – Oliver Letwin, Michael Howard, David Davis and party chairman Theresa May – could fall to small swings. The loss of any or all of these would be, given the current state of the Tory Party, nothing short of cataclysmic.

In East Anglia, the Conservative MP most in danger from a Liberal Democrat spurt is Richard Bacon in Norfolk South. And expect the party to make strong efforts in Saffron Walden, Bury St Edmunds and South Suffolk as they dig in for the long haul.

Charles Kennedy won't be drawn on individual gains. And of course the party won't contemplate any loses among its own parliamentary contingent.

Liberal Democrats should temper their new found fervour. They just do not have the activists to mount a full blooded campaign in every seat in Britain.

They might advances, but talk of overtaking the Tories and becoming the main opposition is really a leap too far.

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