There is a universal, double-edged phrase that people round Westminster use about Charles Kennedy. It is "easy-going". This is rarely meant as a compliment. Good old, young old Charlie, with his easy smile, his gentle humour, his slow and unexcited demeanour, hasn't set the world alight, or produced a blazing manifesto of new ideas. With new Labour's huge majority, Tony Blair has almost been able to ignore the Liberal Democrats.
So the idea of Kennedy angry, Kennedy fired up, Kennedy contemptuous, is an odd one. But when I met him the other day, he was - well, if not exactly angry, certainly fired up and contemptuous. Using stronger language than ever before on the subject, he made it clear that, as far as he is concerned, the once close relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems is over, a casualty of the Prime Minister's infuriating caution on Europe and electoral reform.
Kennedy speaks eloquently of Blair's enthusiasm for "feeding the monsters" of the press barons; of his decision, on Lords reform, to enter "the viper's den" with Tory hereditaries; of public "disillusion and disappointment" with Labour's social agenda; and of the Prime Minister's "lack of leadership" on Europe. On the crunch question of tactical voting, he makes it clear he's having none of it. There is no electoral pact with Labour - not even of the nod-and-a-wink sort at local level. But will he actually be urging his supporters not to vote tactically for new Labour in seats where the Lib Dems have no chance? "Of course I would," he says. "I want in every single constituency to maximise the number of Liberal Democrat votes." For Kennedy, this election is not about the strength of the anti-Tory coalition; it's about achieving as high a share of the national vote as possible, "because that's important for us for the PR argument that follows".
Though Kennedy and Blair get on "fine" at a personal level - and it is hard to imagine two such amiable men not getting on - this is a world away, in tone and content, from Paddy Ashdown's hot, off-on affair with new Labour. But perhaps the change is not so surprising. The Lib Dems have been given the run-around for years. Ashdown, as he faithfully records in his diaries, was led up to the altar of coalition government three times by Blair. Three times he was jilted. Weary senior Lib Dems now expect little further movement from Labour on what they call the democracy agenda.
Blair's refusal to take part in a television debate seems to have been the last straw for Kennedy. He believes that esteem for Blair has fallen both in the media and among the public, and he is happy to increase the pressure on Blair by agreeing to debate with William Hague alone. Kennedy has agreed to take part in a debate organised by the New Statesman during the election campaign - to which all three party leaders have been invited - even if the Labour leader won't join in.
Ashdown and Blair shared a dream; instead, Kennedy has his feet planted firmly on the ground. Any talk of pacts, deals about PR, or any kind of co-operation at all with Labour, will, he knows, be dependent on the election result. "If we find ourselves in a position to do something about it, that's the point at which it becomes a live political issue." Until then, he doesn't appear very interested in "the project", as Blair and Ashdown used to describe their vision.
Even though Robin Cook, who leads for Labour on constitutional affairs, has hinted strongly that the party will include a commitment to a referendum on PR in its next manifesto, Kennedy is not getting overexcited. "Cook has always said he doesn't want to move away from that position," he muses, "but the Prime Minister thus far is delphic on the subject." Although Kennedy has often raised the matter with Blair, he is yet to have even "a significant straw in the wind" to suggest that Labour will repeat its unfulfilled manifesto promise next time round.
Kennedy is well aware that there's a more important referendum hanging "like a sword of Damocles" over everybody - the referendum on the single currency. He is disappointed with Blair for throwing away the chance to have a referendum in the bag already. "I think he should have given leadership on the subject from day one, and if he'd gone for a referendum on the principle in the first six months of his administration, I think he would have won it. But we missed the boat on that, and I think that has to be a valid criticism of his lack of leadership."
Kennedy declares himself "exasperated" with Blair's continued refusal to take a lead on the subject, accusing him of putting the Britain in Europe campaign in an impossible position. "The campaign consisted of the launch, then the word went out from the government: OK, so we've launched it; now we'd like everyone to be quiet, please . . . so you've got all this infrastructure sitting there, but you're essentially being told your raison d'etre is the one thing you're not allowed to do."
Kennedy firmly believes a "yes" vote can be won if supporters of the single currency rise from their torpor and speak out. His side, he points out, will consist of most of Labour and the Lib Dems, some big-name Tories such as Ken Clarke, Chris Patten and Michael Heseltine, the CBI and the TUC. Their opponents will be a "curious amalgam" encompassing Tony Benn, Margaret Thatcher and David Owen. "People will form a conclusion," he says, "as to where the centre of gravity lies." Yet, despite his own confidence in the possibility of winning, Kennedy is clearly beginning to doubt whether Blair will actually come up with the goods. "If you're not willing to try to win over the public in the context of a general election [by taking part in a television debate], then it doesn't augur well for trying to win over the public in the context of a euro referendum campaign."
Blair's attempts to woo the Murdoch press by promising not to hold a euro referendum in any post-election honeymoon period are treated with scorn by Kennedy. He describes the Eurosceptic press as "fair-weather friends" and says that "the more you feed the monster, the more the monster requires feeding". No, Kennedy wants Labour - assuming Labour wins the election - to go to the country early on the issue of the euro, "some time within 12 months of an election", before the mid-term blues set in.
It's not just on the issue of Europe that Kennedy is a disappointed man. He doubts that Labour and the Lib Dems will reach agreement on a plan for a reformed House of Lords - "the omens are not good" - despite the committee that has been set up for the purpose. Kennedy accuses Labour of making a "rod for their own backs" by getting into "the viper's garden with the Conservative Viscount Cranborne" and allowing 92 of the hereditary peers to stay on. Their continued presence in the Lords is, Kennedy believes, the cause of much of the government's present problems there.
Despite all this criticism, Kennedy is loath to describe his party's position as being to the left of new Labour. He likes to demonstrate, with the use of a salt and pepper set, how Labour used to be in one place, with the Liberal Democrats to its right; but now, Labour has moved - a long way - while the Lib Dems have remained in the same place. So why not try to appeal to that large number of disillusioned Labour voters who would support his more radical policies, such as a 50 per cent rate of income tax on the very rich? Kennedy does admit his party is "more radical, more progressive, more reformist". He believes that the "illiberalism" of the government on civil rights and home affairs issues has "offended and dismayed" a lot of people. Yet he still shies away from the label "left-wing", because he sees it as a vote loser.
The Lib Dem manifesto will focus strongly on education. The pledge to put a penny on income tax specifically to fund education will be repeated, but there will also be a proposal to cut class sizes in junior schools to below 25, significantly fewer pupils per class than Labour is aiming for. Freeing up teachers from bureaucracy will be another new theme.
Talk of the election prompts memories of Ashdown's manic energy, striding across huge tracts of land, criss-crossing the country six times a day. Will Kennedy have the stamina for the campaign? He claims that the drawn-out campaign for the Lib Dem leadership was preparation enough, and insists he'd have "buckled quite some time ago, the schedule that I'm under", if he wasn't fairly fit. He confesses that he still enjoys a drink and a smoke. "I should do something about the cigarettes; I quite accept that it's bad for your health, but you know a moderate tipple is positively beneficial and, at certain times, absolutely essential." He is horrified at the thought of joining new Labour's ranks of mineral-water sippers. "If you were to describe me as teetotal, on behalf of my constituency I'd have to sue; that would lose me every vote in the Highlands."
After a year of seeking gravitas, Kennedy has reverted to the odd chat-show appearance, recently taking part in Have I Got News For You. "To be seen to be human," says Kennedy, "provided you're doing your job at the same time, is definitely not a negative, not at all." Kennedy concludes the interview by saying that he is expecting "more votes, more seats" after the election. What he's not prepared to guess at is whether it will be anything like enough more seats to have Blair knocking on his door asking if he'd like to mend their relationship.