Lib Dem ranks in rebellion

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy told activists yesterday to keep alive the flame of regionalism - just as delegates inflicted a humiliating defeat on the leadership's local government plans.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy told activists yesterday to keep alive the flame of regionalism - just as delegates inflicted a humiliating defeat on the leadership's local government plans.

Making his first public speech since he was ousted in January, Mr Kennedy said it was vital to keep campaigning for greater regional devolution - despite the failed attempt to create an elected North-East assembly.

During a 35-minute performance, he insisted the Liberal Democrats had to further champion the idea of regionalism "or we will not reach our goal of a proper federal United Kingdom".

Mr Kennedy's comments, though, were made all the more salutary when just two hours later rank and file members staged a massive rebellion against the party's local government spokesman Andrew Stunell - some branding his proposals "bland and insipid". Ordering him to go back to the drawing board, delegates said merely trying to reaffirm existing policies of greater devolution and more co-operation between authorities lacked vision.

"This document we were asked to support just was not strong enough for us," Newcastle City Council leader John Shipley said. "It would not move us forward."

He was backed by Northumberland County councillor and peer Diana Maddock, who said: "When you are out there running councils you want clear policies. People felt this policy was just not clear enough."

The overwhelming decision to refer the document back to party chiefs, however, met an angry reaction from Mr Stunell.

He accused his colleagues in the party of "not using their heads".

"I am quite used to having accusations put to me about Liberal Democrat policy being misunderstood by Labour and the Tories. It's a pity to have it put to me by Liberal politicians," he said.

The row followed an intense day in which leader Ming Campbell faced down a possible rebellion over key tax plans - and watched as his predecessor received a double standing ovation and rousing reception at the annual conference in Brighton.

Mr Kennedy used his speech - which lasted almost twice as long as planned - to admit it had been one of the "best and worst" years of his life, but that he wanted to stay in politics.

"Politics is where I want to be and it's our politics I want to stay in," he said.

There have been reports that Mr Kennedy might plan a return to the leadership, but the Scot said he had kept to his promise to stay loyal to the new leader and that was "going to remain the case".

There was no handshake between the two men, though, and the omission by Mr Kennedy of any personal tribute to Mr Campbell prompted suggestions that the former leader had not forgiven his successor for triggering his resignation.

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