LIBERAL Democrat leader Charles Kennedy showed the strain of his recent illness yesterday as he took to a Southport stage to deliver the keynote speech at his party's spring conference.
But Mr Kennedy dismissed concerns over his health and painted himself as a leader prepared to take the "tough decisions" needed to boost his party's electoral prospects.
Mr Kennedy used the platform at the town's Floral Hall to focus on issues surrounding the Iraq war and international terrorism.
But mindful that his leadership has been under intense scrutiny in the wake of the ill-health which forced him to miss Wednesday's Budget, he made a point of highlighting his leadership credentials and the "trust" factor.
Mr Kennedy told delegates: "As your leader, I have had to take tough decisions: tough decisions on the Iraq war, tough decisions on the Butler Inquiry, tough decisions on tax and spend. No doubt there will be more. You know that you can trust me to take the tough decisions.
"We must persuade the public that we can take tough decisions for our country as well."
Activists greeted Mr Kennedy's speech with a standing ovation. Though recovered from the stomach bug that laid him low in midweek, Mr Kennedy nevertheless occasionally sounded hoarse and sweated profusely throughout.
Afterwards, the party's home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, said the leader's speech had been full of serious intent. And he said it would also help quell media speculation over Mr Kennedy's future as the head of the party.
"That speech has killed off any nonsense talked about his enthusiasm for leading the party. It was not a serious issue among delegates anyway," said Mr Oaten.
In his speech, Mr Kennedy called on activists to capitalise on the "respect" gained by the party through its opposition to the Iraq war - and argued that Prime Minister Tony Blair had lost the nation's trust.
He warned Mr Blair against focusing on the "special relationship" between Britain and America and ignoring the views of other allies.
"I believe the world will be a better and safer place if we gather the wisdom, the expertise and support of all friendly nations - not just the views of our only superpower - in seeking to confront terrorism.
"We play into the hands of terrorists when they succeed in driving us apart."
On Iraq, he said: "One year on, our country is split and many people now believe Tony Blair exaggerated the threat and sold us a flawed prospectus. Iraq has eroded trust in the Prime Minister. I believe it can't ever be regained in the same way again."
Turning his attention to the Tories, he attacked Michael Howard over his party's vote for measures to cut asylum seeker benefits, his handling of the Hutton and Butler inquiries and his close support of a Home Office whistleblower.
"That's four gaffes in four months for Michael Howard. Just four months in the job, and already there is clear evidence of disturbing trends ... Today, opportunism has a new name - that name is Michael Howard."
Labour chairman Ian McCartney said the conference had demonstrated that the Liberal Democrats' public sector budgeting was deeply flawed.
Mr McCartney added: "Charles Kennedy can have no credibility while he persists with empty spending promises and sums that just don't add up."
Mr Kennedy was no doubt hoping his speech would overshadow a controversy generated by the conference's decision to call for new laws to allow teenagers as young as 16 to view pornography.
The NSPCC, the Church of England and the Tories all expressed concerns at the plans.
Yesterday, the conference committed the party to a ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces, including pubs and clubs as well as workplaces.