Opinion: Lib Dems learn importance of simplicity

Charlie Kennedy's failure to turn up for the Budget was just the sort of PR disaster the Liberal Demcrats could do without, on the eve of their Southport spring conference.

Normally missing a big political event in the House of Commons would not matter too much for a party leader, but Kennedy has form, having also missed Gordon Brown's euro statement. All this comes on top of Westminster gossip about the Liberal leader's drinking habits, started by Jeremy Paxman asking him if he enjoyed having a wee dram.

In Southport I was surprised just how much the Lib Dems' spin doctors failed to understand why there was such a furore over Kennedy's health.

The problem was that they didn't have a simple story to tell about his sudden sickness.

Kennedy himself then said it was 'a complicated story of food poisoning and various other stomach-related complications'. Journalists don't want complicated stories, they want simple ones. What was needed was a good yarn about a dodgy chicken tikka masala. And which clever little Liberal came up with the line that gossip about their leader's health was just 'bar talk'?

There is no doubt that Kennedy was still clearly suffering as he delivered his keynote speech. Press reports though are highly suspect as most Westminster hacks weren't actually in Southport. I thought he did quite well.

Unlike the Tories, the Lib Dems were not left reeling after the Chancellor's clever Budget. Their economic policy now seems sensible compared to the official opposition one.

They have dumped their silly 1p increase in income tax, instead pledging to introduce a new 50p rate for those earning over £100,000, thereby raising £4.7bn. This will pay for the abolition of student fees, provide free care for the elderly and help pay for the abolition of council tax. It is simple and easy to understand, essential for campaigning purposes.

And Kennedy had the election campaign on his mind as he launched a savage attack on Michael Howard, picking up Labour's line that the Tory leader is an opportunist. He could have been scathing about Blair, too, taking up on the theme of trust, but the Liberals know that if they are ever to make a big political breakthrough then it will be at the expense of the Tories.

Despite all the media attacks on Kennedy, the voters do seem to like his folksy way. The Lib Dems' press operation is also fairly slick and, unlike Labour, is not rude to hacks.

With the three political spring conferences over, and having been to them all, I award the Tories my conference PR award with the Lib Dems a close second and Labour a distant third.

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