IN 1999, when Charles Kennedy became leader of the Liberal Democrats the party had 46 Members of Parliament; at the 2001 election there were 52 and earlier this year 62. The share of the national vote taken by the Liberal Democrats under Mr Kennedy's leadership has risen from 16.8 per cent to 22.1 per cent. Why then, is there apparently dissatisfaction in the parliamentary party with Mr Kennedy's performance, as there was at the party conference in September? Or is it all made up by the media, as some Liberal Democrats are suggesting? Yesterday both the party's president, Simon Hughes, and its deputy leader, Menzies Campbell, pledged their unqualified loyalty to Mr Kennedy while he chooses to remain as leader; as yet any possible challenger to him has failed to emerge. Is this unrest all a case of panic brought on by the arrival of an apparently liberal Conservative in the person of David Coleman? There are winks and nudges about Charles Kennedy which those of us outside the Westminster village cannot evaluate, but to judge by what we see on TV at Prime Minister's Questions he is a serious politician. He consistently puts the most pointed issues to Mr Blair, even if he seldom gets answers to them. And it should be remebered that his opposition to the Iraq war was statesmanlike and principled. In the country he is liked as a different kind of politician, quiet and thoughtful, who does not make issues for the sake of media attention. In interviews this week Mr Kennedy has referred to the need to get on with preparing for government, rather as David Steel once foolishly did. In reality, no one, not even Mr Kennedy himself, thinks that the Liberal Democrats will ever form a government. If there was once a chance of becoming the main opposition it has disappeared with a resurgent Conservative party. But there is still an important role for the Liberal Democrats as the conscience of Parliament and under Mr Kennedy they have shown themselves to be very good in taking that responsibility on a variety of issues.
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