CHARLES KENNEDY faces the daunting task of capitalising on the poll success Liberal Democrats believe marks a major breakthrough for the party.

The LibDem leader's formidable election campaign was rewarded with 52 seats, the largest number taken by a third party for almost eight decades.

Mr Kennedy immediately pledged to use that increased strength to provide "effective opposition" pushing for improved public services.

Party chiefs and activists gave him a rousing reception and champagne toast as he arrived at the LibDems' Westminster headquarters with partner Sarah Gurling.

But Mr Kennedy warned them their task had only just begun.

"To all of the people who gave us their support and goodwill we say thank you," he said.

"But the hard work only starts now because we have to translate that support and goodwill into delivery in Parliament itself."

Party strategists believe William Hague's resignation as Tory leader has handed them an opportunity to shine.

Mr Kennedy avoided mentioning the resignation during his brief appearance on the steps of his Cowley Street HQ.

But he repeated his claims that the poll - in which the LibDems took five more seats than in 1997 - had been a "referendum on the opposition".

He said: "The public have made their view clear on that in the vote of confidence they have given us. We must not let them down.

"Having fought a campaign in terms of honesty, and being straightforward and putting quality and fairly-funded public services at the centre of our appeal, we must make sure that message is taken to the floor of the House of Commons in the next parliament."

Mr Kennedy acknowledged the difficult but potentially rewarding position the poll and Mr Hague's resignation gave his party.

A senior aide said during the campaign that claims to be the effective opposition would look foolish if the party did not cut the 14 per cent gap between the LibDem and Tory vote share at the 1997 election.

That has barely changed this time around.