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No one laughs at the Liberal Democrats any more - least of all the Conservatives.

Not so many years ago, the joke around Westminster was that you could fit the entire parliamentary Liberal Party into a London taxi, and still enjoy some leg room.

Now, however, Charles Kennedy rules over more than 50 MPs. They have achieved some stunning victories in seats which even jittery Tories would have regarded as invincibly true-blue.

Secretly, Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith is worried about them. He scoffs in public but he agonises in private. Kennedy is undoubtedly growing in popularity, and is not given to idle boasting.

When Kennedy says that most of the top 40 seats in their target range are Tory-held, Duncan Smith should worry – the LibDem track record is formidable.

Nor does he talk vaguely about such things as the need for them to ‘occupy the centre ground’. Indeed, he showed signs of anger when he was advised to shift his policies to the right of Labour and the left of Tories and ‘mop up’.

‘That is exactly what we should not do,’ he said. ‘In politics you should position yourself behind what you believe in and articulate it.

‘Then see if that is what the voters want, and if it’s not what they want, well, that’s democracy.’

Well said! He has also bravely renounced his predecessor Paddy Ashdown’s policy of cosying-up to Labour, giving the party an appealing independent stance.

Those who used to think that Charles Kennedy was no more than an amusing turn on TV chat-shows are now revising their views.

And if yet more disasters befall the Conservatives – and they appear to be heading blithely in that direction – then Charles Kennedy is the man most likely to create them.

  • Chris Moncrieff is a senior political analyst at PA news.

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