Scarcely had I finished listening to Charles Kennedy's debut speech as Liberal Democrat leader at his party conference in Harrogate than I was racing down the A1 to interview Tony Blair ahead of his tryst this week with Labour's activists in Bournemouth.

This is all less glamorous than it sounds. Party conference speeches are rarely great works of oratorical art in the made-for-TV-era, a point which Mr Kennedy knows all too well to judge from his modest demeanour. As for interviews with senior politicians, by the time they get to the top such folk are generally too guarded to give much away. Watch David Frost on TV next Sunday if you don't believe me.

All the same, you usually learn something. Mr Kennedy, for instance, comes across as a Highland Scot whose crofting roots make him a natural democrat, a man on the side of the underdog. In fact, a bit like the late John Smith, who was also born north of the Highland line. Whether it will do him much good I am not sure. You could go to the pub with Charles (I've done it), but do voters want to be led by such genial souls?

Fair do's, though. The Kennedy speech, delivered in the style of a fireside chat, kept returning to issues of social justice, poverty and exclusion, gays and asylum seekers as well as the old and sick. He sounded as if he meant it. His theme was, 'we must reconnect politics to people'.

Did the Lib Dems convince on this score in Harrogate? Yes and no. Their hearts are usually in the right place, and they poured into fringe meetings to hear the likes of the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing.

Activists also threw their modest weight behind the junior hospital doctors after an emotional appeal by health spokesman Dr Evan Harris, who told them: 'My time as a junior hospital doctor was the most stressful and traumatic of my whole life.'

Simon Hughes, who is poised to leave the health portfolio, backed calls for lots more money, though the energetic and ever-eloquent MP's inability to stop saying daft things about Charlie's laid-back style reminded most of the parliamentary colleagues why they didn't vote to make him Paddy Ashdown's heir.

If Mr Kennedy is a natural agnostic and Mr Hughes a believer, Tony Blair is a professional. He thinks he is making real strides, 'modernising' Britain and is far more radical than he gives himself credit for. Why? Because, if you wear your left-wing heart on your sleeve, as past Labour governments tended to, you frighten middle England. Mr Blair believes that if you stress competence instead, they trust you more.

There's a problem with that strategy, as reports from Bournemouth will have confirmed by the time you read this: activists find class war rhetoric (the 'squeezing the rich until the pips squeak' stuff Blair so despises) reassuring. They miss it, and they think that low by-election turn-outs in Wigan and Hamilton show that core voters do, too.

Nonetheless, in an hour at Chequers with my Guardian colleague, Polly Toynbee, I was struck by the Kennedy-esque frequency with which he returned to poverty and the improvement of public services. At one point he actually said: 'This government has done more for traditional Labour supporters than any Labour government.'

By that he meant extra money for pensioners, the New Deal to make work pay for the excluded poor, childcare, literacy programmes, the working families tax credit, the minimum wage etc. A lot of it will take time to come through, he conceded. But 'we are laying the foundations... by funding that can last and be sustained over a period of time and by the reforms and changes that are a mixture of pressure and support in the system to deliver good results'.

'A mixture of pressure and support.' That's the key phrase. He was actually talking about schools at that point, where (so a Guardian/ICM poll claims this week) voters can feel a difference. But he went on to apply it to the NHS. 'In hospitals, I think exactly the same will emerge in the next year, and in NHS Direct, the new career structure for nurses, the fact that we are actually recruiting more nurses and doctors, the new hospital building programmes and the renovation of all the A&E departments.'

I know what you're thinking. But he spoke with conviction and sounded as if he's very much in charge. Head more than heart. But head's better.