Politics - John Kampfner wants more gravitas from Kennedy

If the Lib Dems are to oust the Tories as the main opposition party, somebody has to find a way of i

Chat Show Charlie ended 2002 doing what he likes doing most - appearing on telly to tell jokes. With the Labour government stumbling from crisis to crisis and the Conservatives failing to capitalise on them, last year offered a golden opportunity to the Liberal Democrats. Trouble was, their leader, Charles Kennedy, failed to take it.

This year will be pivotal to the future of opposition politics in the UK. Both the Lib Dems and Labour are publicly canvassing the idea that the Tories could disintegrate as a major party. The latest polls - notably one by ICM in mid-December - put the Lib Dems only four points behind the Tories' 27 per cent, a four-year low. The figures agree with the three parties' private polls.

Kennedy's "slow burn" strategy is based on two assumptions: that the Conservative decline is inexorable (a point made to senior MPs just before Christmas by the Lib Dems' chief strategist, Lord Rennard); and that the only way to win over voters in this world of shifting allegiances and mass disengagement is to act differently from conventional politicians.

Hence the appearance on Have I Got News for You - something that worried several of his aides. Yet the aides acknowledge that they couldn't change Kennedy even if they wanted to. "Charles's light-heartedness is not something you can play up or play down. It's simply the way he is," says one.

Opinion is split within senior ranks of the Lib Dems. Some MPs and other grandees speak privately of their intense frustration over Kennedy's "post-political" style. Others, mainly the younger generation, defend his approach. They point to Kennedy's popularity ratings, which are improving all the time as Blair's slide, and Iain Duncan Smith remains in the mire.

But the question those around Kennedy ask, and have asked ever since he became leader in August 1999, is: does he have what it takes? "I could bloody strangle him sometimes," says one senior Lib Dem. "We could and should be really going for the government and the Tories. But our visibility is as low as it's ever been." Kennedy's cause hasn't been helped by a lack of by-elections in this second Blair term - by-elections are among the few occasions outside general elections when the Lib Dems' visibility is guaranteed.

Some Lib Dem MPs believe it would have been all so different if Menzies Campbell, their patrician defence spokesman, had stood for the leadership. His forensic questioning of Blair on Iraq has set him apart. Some even wonder what it would have been like under the more pugnacious approach of Simon Hughes, the runner-up.

If they are to make further inroads beyond their contingent of 52 MPs at Westminster, the Lib Dems have to target those constituencies where the Tory majority is fragile. For the Tories truly to disappear would require a pincer movement of Lib Dems and Labour, each targeting the most vulnerable areas. It was not entirely coincidental that the Labour Party chairman, John Reid, devoted a speech last month to declaring the inevitability of the Tory decline.

The Lib Dems appear convinced that just by presenting themselves as "reasonable, fair-minded and honest", they can pick up Conservatives disillusioned with their own lot and disdainful of the government. Therein lies much wishful thinking.

On policy, Kennedy has astutely cast off the three legacies of the Ashdown era: the "constructive engagement" with Labour; the obsession with electoral reform; and the extra penny on income tax to pay for improved schools and hospitals. But in their place has come a number of mixed messages. Labour is right to have spent the extra money as we have always advocated, the Lib Dems now say, but the party can't be trusted to spend it properly. Conclusion: decisions such as these should involve devolution to local management.

The one area in which the Lib Dems appear both consistent and passionate is civil liberties. Their distinctiveness is strong, yet even party pollsters admit that there are not huge reservoirs of votes to be gained in contrasting their human rights emphasis on issues such as asylum, policing and sentencing with Labour and the Tories.

Kennedy remains quietly confident that by playing it long, he could position his party to deliver the knockout blow to the Tories at the next election, in 2005 or 2006. With a war against Iraq looming, with a decision on the euro to be taken by June, he will have ample opportunity to stake his claim as the leader of the only credible opposition to an increasingly beleaguered government. But to do this, senior MPs say privately, he has to remember that, jokes aside, politics remains a serious business. As one senior party official puts it: "If only we can implant some gravitas into Charles, we might really stand a chance."