Kennedy must focus opposition

August 13, 1999

Is it possible to ride two horses at once? Charles Kennedy, the new Liberal Democrat leader, seems to think so. His problem is that one horse, the grassroots party, after 11 years of Paddy Ashdown in the saddle, feels the urge to kick up its heels and head home to the political wilds. The other is the government and the opportunities for office that may come the Liberals' way.

In a speech following Monday's narrower-than-expected victory over Simon Hughes, Mr Kennedy said he wanted both further cooperation with the government and a strong, independent party that is a progressive alternative to Labour. He need do little to achieve the former. The main cooperative mechanism, the Joint Consultative Committee, looks set to continue, if he chooses. Achieving the latter will depend on how far he is willing to go in pursuit of his "strong alternative".

At present Britain lacks a credible opposition. Without it governments - this one included - grow arrogant, viewing criticism as heresy. Since the Conservatives are totally ineffective, still arguing among themselves, there is an opportunity for Mr Kennedy. Someone needs to pick at the detail of government policy implementation. Liberal Democrat politicians have proved themselves rigorous detail-mongers. The education team, in particular, has consistently produced figures that deflate government spin, or would if anyone paid attention to them. If Mr Kennedy can shift his party's image from one of idealistic mavericks and Labour toadies to the party of serious and responsible opposition he will do us all a considerable service.

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