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New dad Kennedy takes the strain

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls May 5 election.
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Robin Oakley
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Back to launch the Liberal Democrat manifesto after just two days of paternity leave following the birth of his son, Charles Kennedy was asked if he had had enough sleep. "Could have done with more," he replied. We've most of us been there.

Any sympathy vote did not last for long with the media, who unkindly pointed out that bookmakers were quoting the same 100-1 odds against Kennedy or baby Donald becoming prime minister. Hopefully I will have stopped reporting elections by the time young Donald proves that to be a generous price.

Kennedy was grilled over just how many people will have to pay more tax under the Liberal Democrats plans to bring in a local income tax in place of the property-based local council tax.

Basically it seems that 50 percent of those paying council tax will pay less, 25 percent will pay about the same and 25 percent will pay more. But since 6 million pensioners will be taken out of paying local tax the most vote-ready section of the community may find it worth studying the Lib Dem manifesto, which also promises an extra £100 a month for the over 75s and free personal care for the incapacitated elderly.

The Lib Dems are the one party entering these elections admitting that they plan to increase taxes. They are proposing a new top rate of tax, at 50 percent, for all those earning more than £100,000 a year. The Conservatives say they will cut tax, though they have had to admit that it won't be in the first year as they had previously promised.

Labour say, as they did last time, that they won't increase the top or standard rate of tax. But in 2002 they then cheated, increasing National Insurance rates instead, which worked out just the same as a tax increase.

The Lib Dems at least earn a point for honesty. After the past nine elections my basic law of politics is that dogs bark, cats miaow and governments put up taxes.

I don't altogether mind that. I want to live in a civilized society with decent public services, and I appreciate that good services cost money. But I just wish they would all be straighter about it and not conduct a kind of reverse Dutch auction, pledging ever more doctors, teachers and policemen and ever less tax to pay for them. That is what disillusions people about the political process.

Kennedy, of course, proved to be the first party leader who wanted to talk about Iraq, reminding us that there are still 8,000 British servicemen and women serving there two years after the war was officially declared to have ended. He wants a clear exit strategy, with a phased withdrawal beginning at the end of the year.

The Lib Dems' anti-war stance helped them shake Labour by winning one parliamentary by-election last summer and nearly grabbing another, in both cases in constituencies with a significant Muslim vote. Add to the anti-war stance the Lib Dems' opposition to student tuition fees and the deliberately Green tone of their proposals and you can see significant successes ahead for Kennedy's party in seats with a high concentration of students too.

But the Lib Dems also have their hushed tone areas. Many of those who might be attracted to vote for them on a protest vote basis are Euro-skeptics. The Lib Dems are the most enthusiastically pro-Europe party in Britain, backing both the new EU constitution and early British entry into the single European currency.

But we have not heard much about those two issues from the Kennedy team, nor will we.. That will be especially true, you can bet, in the southwest of England where there are potentially rich Lib Dem pickings and where the EU is about as popular as last week's fish.

I shall be watching Kennedy to see how he is coping not just with electioneering, which he appears to enjoy, but with fatherhood. I fear the strain is showing after only two days.

When his wife Sarah gave birth he announced he would be returning to the political fray "with a song in my heart and a new spring in my step." When he tried to repeat the refrain at the end of his manifesto launch he declared that he had a "new stride in his step." Sounds rather reminiscent of the "Ministry of Silly Walks."

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