OPINION: Kennedy off the sherbet to keep his powder dry

Probably the only Liberal Democrat not celebrating in Brighton's Grand Hotel bar last Saturday night was Charles Kennedy.

The Liberal leader's absence had nothing to do with the fact that he didn't want to be seen getting too complacent, but because he didn't want the media to see him getting pissed.

It's difficult to believe now but, at the start of the summer, the leader with the most problems was neither the hapless Iain Duncan Smith, nor even the out-of-touch Tony Blair. No, it was Kennedy, who was facing a series of very nasty negative briefings that not only claimed he was lacklustre and lazy, but also that he was a drunk.

It was perhaps because Kennedy poses a threat to both Labour and the Tories that this particular nasty piece of gossip was taken seriously by so many papers. I myself have shared a few sherbets with Charlie and there is no doubt that, like most of us, he enjoys a few drinks. Having said that, I have never seen him incapably drunk - which is more than I can say about myself or even some prominent Labour Cabinet members.

I know that Kennedy and his spin doctors are very hurt by the accusations against him, but they should not be. What was supposed to be negative PR has in fact turned out for the best after all. I did a straw poll of fellow fishermen on the riverbank the other day and the unanimous view was that the drinking jibes were good for the Liberal leader. It made him seem more like a normal bloke and not a boring politician.

We all remember how Tory spin doctors invented a story about William Hague drinking 15 pints a night in a desperate bid to make him look normal.

This backfired spectacularly because no one believed it, but the Tory PR machine did have the right idea. No one really trusts a teetotaller - just look at the now abstemious Alastair Campbell.

Charles Kennedy is actually a much more astute politician than most people give him credit for. He is well to the left of Tony Blair, but has been able to woo Tory voters to his party. IDS's attack on Kennedy's election strategy only shows how totally out of touch the Tories are. It is precisely because the Liberal Democrats can appeal to left and right that they are such a threat.

A poll in The Times this week - which showed the Tories to be far too right wing for the British public - showed something even more significant.

Tory voters actually believe that the Lib Dems are to the right of Labour.

This is exactly as Kennedy would want it, because it is Tory voters, not Labour, that he has in his sights, at least in the short term. Of the 100 seats on the Lib Dems' target list, 75 are held by the Conservatives.

Given the current state of the Tory party, it is quite likely that Kennedy will win at least half of these, and probably more if the Tories don't match the Lib Dems' PR effort. They have been pretending to be anti-spin for years now and the Tories have only just realised it.

The truth about the Lib Dems is, of course, that they spin even more than Labour. They also have a ruthless election machine that is quite willing to - and often does - go into the gutter.

In Brent they knew Blair was a liability. The local Labour Party never used Blair's face on any of their literature, so the Lib Dems did it for them, adding Bush too, just in case you didn't get the message. The voters of Brent did and as a result Charlie Kennedy has had a much better week than Blair will in Bournemouth, despite never once being seen with a drink in his hand.

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