Profile: Charles Kennedy - The liberal party animal

It was an occasion so outwardly civilised that it might have taken place in the days of the old SDP, the party which first propelled Charles Kennedy to prominence as the youngest MP this century and which, in 1987, he played a pivotal role in smashing for good. For one thing the claret was among the finest the Reform Club - where else? - had to offer, a premier cru Chateau Kissac. But when Mr Kennedy sat down to dinner last week, with his fellow Liberal Democrat MPs Menzies Campbell and Archy Kirkwood, it was rather more than a mere gathering of old friends.

The concerns of Mr Kennedy's colleagues had nothing to do with his engagingly un-PC reputation as a drinker, smoker and late riser, or his success as an eclectic performer on shows like Have I Got News For You or The News Quiz - something which, in a wild understatement, he summarises in his Who's Who entry as "occasional journalist, broadcaster and lecturer". They were instead entirely political. Over his omelette Arnold Bennett, Mr Campbell was especially persistent. What exactly were Mr Kennedy's intentions towards continuing co-operation with the Labour Party? And when Mr Kennedy talked of making "social justice" one of the central themes of the campaign, what exactly did that admirable sentiment mean? Did he really think that it was possible to sustain the Liberal Democrats as a party to the left of Labour when the political space increasingly being abandoned by an increasingly right wing and nationalistic Conservative Party was in the centre? And if so, how did Mr Kennedy expect to retain those Liberal Democrat seats where the Tories were challenging?

The discussion was amicable. But Mr Campbell and Mr Kirkwood were far from satisfied. Their hope is that a special parliamentary party hustings next Wednesday will draw the battle lines for what they see as the central issue in the contest: whether or not the strategy of "constructive opposition" will be maintained, and whether Mr Kennedy is, in the word of one of the party's grandees, "coalitionable". Whether or not, in short, the Ashdown legacy will be preserved or abandoned.

Whatever his current inclinations, the 39-year-old Charles Peter Kennedy is almost ideally qualified by background to maintain Paddy Ashdown's approach. For one thing, although his paternal grandfather had been an active, old-fashioned Highland Liberal, Mr Kennedy began his political life in the Labour Party, defecting to the SDP on its formation in 1981 partly because Labour seemed "less about releasing individual potential and more about levelling down". Only the late John Smith of recent party leaders had as solidly a Highland pedigree as Mr Kennedy. Like Smith he is also the beneficiary of the best of the Scottish educational system.

He was born in Fort William, one of three children in a happy and tightly knit family. Ian Kennedy was a crofter and a draughtsman with the Scottish hydro-electric board, besides being an accomplished musician. Charles Kennedy went to Lochaber High School, where an inspirational English teacher, Robert Dick, spotted his talent for debating, and the University of Glasgow, where he read English for three years before switching to politics and philosophy. He was president of the university union before winning a Fulbright scholarship to Indiana University where he went to do to a PhD - and teach - political rhetoric after a spell working as a seasonal radio reporter in the BBC Highland office in Inverness. He was at Indiana University when the Liberal/SDP Alliance candidacy for the seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye came up. Among several people he consulted was his former colleague - and later the BBC's hugely respected Scottish political editor - the late Kenny Macintyre, who had been something of a mentor and had urged him to have a crack at it. His father Ian toured the constituency, the largest in Britain - "two million acres of mountain glen and moors" as Kennedy junior described it - with his son, playing the fiddle to attract the more apolitical to meetings. At one, in Skye, a wag urged him not to prolong his speech shouting: "Aye, we know who you are, now come on Ian give us another tune."

The Tory candidate and energy minister, Hamish Gray, was beleaguered by controversy over the closure of the Invergordon aluminium smelter. Mr Kennedy was helped by boundary reorganisation. The 23-year-old SDP candidate came from fourth place to take the seat. Mr Kennedy, who had expected to go back to Indiana, was scarcely less surprised than Macintyre when he won.

Mr Kennedy was rapidly taken under the wing of Roy Jenkins. They quite often travelled on the Glasgow sleeper and Mr Jenkins's avuncular patronage added to Mr Kennedy's lustre as a frighteningly articulate and persuasive political prodigy. In a period when it seemed as if the Alliance would eclipse Labour as the main party of anti-Tory opposition, it looked as if there would be no limits to his potential. In those heady days, if anyone in the 1983 intake looked like a future prime minister it was Charles Kennedy rather than Tony Blair.

Sixteen years, however, is a long time to be the most promising kid on the block. He was talked about as a possible leadership candidate in 1988, He was elected party president in 1990. As even one of his sternest critics admits, he was "terrific" in that post for four years. But by the 1997 election he had begun to confront early middle age still a popular but only mid-ranking member of his party front bench. It was frustrating. Though one of the best off-the-cuff speakers in politics he has not been a notable parliamentarian (it is mildly characteristic that, according to Hansard, he last week missed the three line whip against the Government on the Asylum and Immigration Bill, because he was on the leadership stump in Plymouth).

His high media profile - he did a star turn for a while on a radio panel with Austin Mitchell and Julian Critchley - attracted envy among less media-friendly colleagues. It was also deemed a little frivolous, not least because he sometimes seemed to relish taking the mickey out of his own party almost as much as his interlocutors did. He was notoriously unpunctual, though never, as one colleague remarked, "when it came to a TV appearance or writing a newspaper column". There were also question marks - even in the Ashdown office - about his application.

One BBC man, asking his office to send all the press releases he had issued in a year as health spokesman, was surprised to receive only six. As a notably skilful, high-wire improviser, he had a tendency to busk his way out of trouble. Nor was he always consistent - locally or nationally. In the summer and autumn of 1997, after the election, he appeared to play to the activist gallery and question Mr Ashdown's strategy of building bridges with Labour by implying, improbably, that the Liberal Democrats could somehow replace the Tories as the main party of opposition. Equally, while he is now a stern critic of the unpopular tolls on the Skye bridge, he was criticised for failing to attack them when the bridge was first conceived. His critics within the party - several in high places - began to wonder whether he had the staying power to be a successful leader of a party which, beneath the surface, is fractious. The Liberal Democrat Party is not as nice as it looks.

Two episodes beside his decision to stand for parliament in 1983 suggest that on the big issues he has a good deal more grit and judgement than these criticisms implied. The first came in the gruesome aftermath of the 1987 election in which Mr Kennedy was the first MP to defy David Owen and opt for a merger with the Liberal Democrats. Mr Kennedy had planned to vote for the leadership's option proposing "closer co-operation" with the Liberals, but, when he questioned Mr Owen, he established that the SDP leader "would never join a merged party". By voting against it he fractured the unity of the SDP MPs and took perhaps the decisive step to bringing the Liberal Democrats into being. Roy Jenkins had castigated his young protege, using some fruitily brutalist and un-Jenkinsite language, for standing by Mr Owen. But it still took considerable courage to break with Mr Owen.

This was a time when the Owenites, Stasi-like, were attributing odd things to all their enemies. According to the SDP's historians Ivor Crewe and Anthony King Mr Kennedy's switch of allegiance was due to the fact "he had had too much to drink over lunch". Robert Maclennan, according to Owen himself, initially called Mr Kennedy a "Judas". Yet Mr Maclennan quite swiftly joined Mr Kennedy in the defection and they became inseparable allies; when a famously weeping Mr Maclennan found the Liberals rejecting the cherished policy document he had drawn up as a basis of the new merged party, it was Mr Kennedy who stood with him by the windows for 20 minutes, gently calming him.

The other episode was Mr Kennedy's steely preparedness to run for the leadership this time. At the 1997 party conference he dined with Mr Campbell, Lord McNally and their wives, and his friend - and now member of the campaign team - the Liberal dynast Jane Bonham-Carter.

It was agreed that if Mr Ashdown stood down "early", Mr Kennedy would leave Mr Campbell with a clear run, and hope in due course to succeed him. If Mr Ashdown stood down "late" the positions would be reversed. What was not agreed was what would happen if he stood down when he did, in the middle of the Parliament. When he did, Mr Kennedy was ready to stand with a campaign team in place and a determination to go for it. The able and respected Campbell, it turned out, had neither.

Despite the doubts, in other words, Mr Kennedy almost certainly has the right stuff for front-rank politics. Which is just as well because, unless he implodes, he is a safe bet to win. His fabled gregariousness and sociability is almost certainly more of an asset than a drawback. With a life which isn't confined to politics, he can see the joke. He doesn't pretend to be remotely sporty. He relishes saying that he reads "airport fiction". His main relaxation "away from it all" is the development of the nine acre family croft at Fort William which is still his home in Scotland. Finally his relationship with the active Liberal Democrat and Camelot executive Sarah Gurling, looks, according to his friends, like leading to marriage. There is even a view that he has deliberately played up his slightly casual, fun-lover image to contrast it with the qualities he may yet show as leader; that he will be "like Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I, casting off the unpolitical Bardolphs and media Falstaffs" before settling down to doing what, in some ways, is one of the most difficult, thankless tasks in politics.

The unresolved question remains the one posed by Mr Campbell at the Reform Club dinner. This week, after Mr Kennedy announced that he was in favour of extending Lib-Lab co-operation to pensions and European reform, Mr Ashdown was said to have been relieved that his legacy seemed intact. Others are not so sure. The division between those who want the Ashdown "project" to continue, and those - like Jackie Ballard and Simon Hughes - who are more circumspect is the real division in the party. If Mr Kennedy fudges it now he will win by a bigger majority than if he doesn't. But without a clear mandate for continued co-operation, and with the central conflict in the party unresolved, he may find his fudge will come back to haunt him.

Brief History

Born: November 25, 1959, in Inverness, Scotland.

Education: Lochaber High School, Fort William; University of Glasgow; and Indiana University (Fulbright scholar)

Family: Father, Ian, a crofter and draughtsman; Mother, Mary a housewife. Elder brother Ian (46) and sister, Isabel (48). Current girlfriend Sarah Gurling (29) a Camelot executive.

Political career: President of University of Glasgow Union 1980-81. Winner, Observer Mace Debating Tournament, 1982. MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (and successor constituency) since 1983. Liberal Democrat President 1990-94, Spokesman on Europe 1992-97 and on Rural Affairs since 1997. Said to be Tony Blair's favourite to succeed Ashdown.

TV appearances: Have I Got News for You, Call My Bluff, Countdown, Through the Keyhole.

Pastimes: Maintaining the family croft. Reading political biographies and "airport fiction". Socialising.

View of himself: "Too old to rock'n'roll, too young to die".

On the Party leadership: "I've seen what a physically and mentally grinding job the leadership is to do. It is a job that you can only do if you eat, drink and sleep it."

His style: "I'm instinctively collegiate, I'm a consulter"

Rather forget: "That's enough health. I need a fag." (Overheard after posing for photographers at a Glasgow supermarket to promote healthy food).

Detractors say: "While Paddy Ashdown gets up at 5am, Mr Kennedy gives the impression of only going to bed at that time"

Odds to win: 2/5 favourite. Others: Simon Hughes and Don Foster (6/1); David Rendel (7/1); Jackie Ballard (10/1); Malcolm Bruce (25/1)

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