Cutting through Lib Dem type

FOR the past five days, 2,000 apparently sane and rational men and women, self contained in a conference venue and surrounding hotels, have whipped themselves up into such a frenzy that they now believe and assume it will be only a matter of a few years before the electors hand them the keys to Downing Street.

FOR the past five days, 2,000 apparently sane and rational men and women,

self contained in a conference venue and surrounding hotels, have whipped

themselves up into such a frenzy that they now believe and assume it will be

only a matter of a few years before the electors hand them the keys to


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Downing Street.

At times, sitting with and talking to Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth has

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been akin to attending a United States bible belt meeting, with everyone

preaching the gospel of "tomorrow belongs to us."

Lord Razzell, the party's election strategist, did nothing to stop the week

getting out of hand, predicting that the Lib Dems would be in government

within six years with Charles Kennedy as Prime Minister.

Wiser heads would do well to recall that we've been down this road before.

Who can forget 1986, when David Steel told the conference to "prepare for

Government" because he had mistaken the opinion polls and written off the

Labour Party's chances of ever again forming a Government.

The assumption was that the Lib Dems at the following year's General

Election would be seen by the grateful voters as the only alternative to the

Tories.

It didn't happen.

Sixteen years later, it's the Tories whom the Lib Dems believe they are

about to destroy. And the opinion polls indicate massive support for

Kennedy's party.

Perhaps there is a greater justification for dismissing the ailing

Conservative Party today than Labour in the 1980s. Large swathes of the UK

are today no-go areas for the Tories but even at its nadir, Labour could

still get MPs elected all over the country.

Charles Kennedy does not set the world on fire. Perhaps it's unfair to call

him slow and steady, but he should see that as flattery because his calm

style is appealing to an increasing number of voters fed up with bitter name

calling of the other two parties.

Projecting Mr Kennedy's amiable image is all part of the Lib Dems' strategy.

And the current political climate is ripe for a third party to make

spectacular headway at the election.

We have a Labour government which is deeply unpopular and distrusted, its

Chancellor and Prime Minister at war with each other, and millions of its

voters preparing to drift off because of Iraq.

The Tory opposition is seen as ineffective and irrelevant and not to have

learned the lessons of its crushing defeats in 1997 and 2001.

Only once since the end of World War II has Britain's cosy two-party

domination really been challenged. Cast your minds back to the months before

the Falklands War, when Margaret Thatcher's Tories were deeply unpopular but

the Labour opposition, led from the far left by Michael Foot, were not

trusted by the voters.

The Gang of Four launched the SDP and in alliance with the Liberal Party

looked as if it could break the traditional mold. If it hadn't been for the

grandiose ambitions of a fascist Argentinian dictator, British political

life could be completely different today.

Today, the party's appeal to Labour voters is obvious. Not only was it

opposed to the war in Iraq, it has promised to scrap student tuition fees,

do away with the hated council tax, introduce a 50% tax band on all all

earnings above ?100,000, and deliver free long term care for the elderly.

The Tories currently have 166 MPs and the Lib Dems 54. To overhaul the

Conservatives, which the Lib Dems are certain they can do, would mean the

Tories losing 50 seats to the Lib Dems and for the Lib Dems to gain 20

seats.

Despite the hype, it seems a step too far.

But that doesn't stop the Lib Dems' eternal optimism.

In his closing speech yesterday, Mr Kennedy said: "It's a simple statement

of fact that the Conservatives are now out of the race in most of urban

Britain. The only effective challenge to Labour is coming from the Liberal

Democrats.

"In so much of the country, a vote for the Conservatives is now a wasted

vote."

Claiming the Tories belong to the past, Mr Kennedy added: "We're working for

the future. We are moving from a party of protest to a party of power.

"Three party politics is here - and here to stay."

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