Charles Kennedy: 'I'm like a football manager. I'm only as good as my last result or big decision'

The Monday Interview: Leader Of The Liberal Democrats

Charles Kennedy was chatting backstage with David Bowie recently about Iain Duncan Smith's new novel. "Do you think I should have bought it?" inquired the rock star. Mr Kennedy looked alarmed and replied as diplomatically as he could. He told Bowie: "I don't think it's quite your take." The Liberal Democrat leader, one of David Bowie's most avid fans, is pondering where to hang a photograph of the musician in his new house.

Charles Kennedy was chatting backstage with David Bowie recently about Iain Duncan Smith's new novel. "Do you think I should have bought it?" inquired the rock star. Mr Kennedy looked alarmed and replied as diplomatically as he could. He told Bowie: "I don't think it's quite your take." The Liberal Democrat leader, one of David Bowie's most avid fans, is pondering where to hang a photograph of the musician in his new house.

Mr Kennedy has just moved to South-east London with his wife Sarah after 20 years living in a bachelor flat five minutes from the House of Commons. "The prize possession remains the gold disc of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. That's up in the study so I see it every day," he says. "Yesterday, we got some really nice photographs of Sarah and myself with Bowie after his last concert in London. We were at the backstage party and having a chat to him. I was saying to Sarah last night, 'one of those pictures has got to go in a frame'."

Since becoming leader of the Liberal Democrats four years ago, Mr Kennedy has had to forgo invitations to swanky rock 'n' roll parties. These days, he is preoccupied with endless "managerial meetings", formulating policy and travelling to far-flung parts of Britain to address the party faithful.

He is drafting his speech for this weekend's spring conference in Southport, where he will attack Michael Howard for "opportunism" and poor political judgement. It will be at least the 40th keynote conference speech that Charles Kennedy, who was elected as an MP to the Highland seat of Ross, Skye and Inverness West in 1983, has made.

"I'm coming up to my 21st anniversary in Parliament. I find it a very disturbing thought," he says. "I was elected to this place at the age of 23 and I am now within distance of being here longer than my life before I was an MP." Mr Kennedy shoots a wistful glance at the mirror on the back of his door as he pulls on another cigarette.

"I am not getting obsessed with my own mortality. But you do appreciate the passage of time."

Charles Kennedy was elected leader in August 1999, and has presided over a steady rise in the party's fortunes since then. He is pleased with the recognition the Lib Dems have gained as a serious third force in British politics.

"I think there is real sense out there among the public, but it is also reflected in the corridors of power, that we are in three-party politics and it's not going to go away," he says. "We are given a status, an access, just a level of recognition by the establishment which wouldn't have been the case before - certainly not in the Eighties when I was first elected.

"David Owen as leader of the SDP had to fight a big public campaign to get the right to lay a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Today it would be unthinkable that we weren't there."

The Liberal Democrats' distinctive anti-war stance has reaped dividends for the party in the polls and it recently humiliated Labour by winning one of its safest seats in the Brent East by-election. Mr Kennedy has had to dodge flak from Downing Street over his constant challenges about the legal basis for war and the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

Recently, Mr Kennedy took the tough but ultimately popular decision to refuse to take part in an inquiry set up by Tony Blair into the intelligence which led to war in Iraq.

Mr Kennedy defied convention and some of his own advisers by refusing to appoint a Lib Dem MP to the Butler committee, because ministers' decisions would be excluded from the investigation.

"It is quite difficult when the Prime Minister of the country rings you up and says we are setting up an inquiry into the biggest issue of the day, would you like to join, and you say, 'on balance, no.' I don't think he expected the response that he got. I think there was an assumption that we would just instinctively subscribe to this particular process," he says. "But when I asked him one or two perfectly fair and legitimate questions it became clear to me that this inquiry was not going to be pressing on the issues we wanted to address and what most people wanted addressed. "So the answer was 'no'."

The Liberal Democrats' rise in the polls has led to their policies being subjected to more forensic scrutiny. But Mr Kennedy regards the glare of the spotlight as a challenge to which his party must rise.

"Anything that makes us as a party raise our game is a good thing," he says. "We have got to be sound, we have got to be secure in policy terms. We have just got to be more professional, more credible, more persuasive to people. Anything that helps add to that atmosphere is excellent."

This month, the party launched an overhaul of its economic policies, with new costings and controversial proposals to privatise a string of state assets, including the Royal Mint. But Mr Kennedy believes the rethink has put the Liberal Democrats on a surer footing to take on the Government at the next election.

"It's the economy, stupid. And that mantra is very true and we have got to get that right." Mr Kennedy has resisted calls from within his own party to "slag off" his adversaries because he believes personal attacks undermine public confidence in politics. But he says the "political judgment" of both Michael Howard and Tony Blair is now fair game.

He thinks the Prime Minister was not only wrong over Iraq and the introduction of top-up fees for students, but that he can never win back the public trust he once enjoyed.

"I think it's very difficult for the Prime Minister to regain the level of trust that existed a few years ago. Very difficult indeed. That may be the inevitable consequence of events or the passage of time, but it strikes me that there is just a fundamental sense out there that you can't quite be certain that what you are being told is accurate.

"And that is very corrosive for a government - any government." The Liberal Democrats, he believes, are in a strong position to capitalise on public unease about Labour's direction.

"People feel that they are not getting the straight story somehow," he says.

Mr Kennedy is acutely aware of the need to "get it right" and spends hours churning over important strategic decisions in his mind. With his personal approval ratings only marginally behind the Prime Minister and ahead of Michael Howard, he has good reason to feel relaxed. But although he says, "it's so far so good", he still agonises over big decisions.

"Sometimes you sit at home and you think and think. Other times you hear and listen to what people are saying and you have to think and weigh that up as well," he says.

He says his greatest regret was failing to challenge the Prime Minister over the arrest of pro-democracy demonstrators during the visit of the Chinese president to Britain.

"I should have been up on my feet on the floor of the House of Commons putting that to Tony Blair. I do kick myself about that," he says.

Mr Kennedy's modest and unaffected political style has won him many fans among the public. He says his approach to politics has changed little since he was first elected and he still regards his position as "very privileged".

"The way I would put it is in religious terms. Although I am a Scot and a Roman Catholic, I have a rather Presbyterian view of party leadership and I don't think you should ever be too pleased with yourself. It's like football management: you are only as good as your last decision or your last result, so you just have to keep going at it day by day by day. It never stops."

The CV: Rt Hon Charles Kennedy

Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West

Born: 29 November 1959 in Inverness

Marital status: Married to Sarah. No children

Education: Lochaber High School, Glasgow University (MA Politics, Philosophy and English 1982), and Indiana University (1982-83)

1982: Journalist with BBC Highlands

1983: Becomes youngest MP when elected to House of Commons as SDP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye

1987: First SDP MP to back the merger with the Liberals after the general election, and moved a successful motion to this effect at the party conference that year

1990-1994: Liberal Democrat Party President

August 1999: Elected leader of the Liberal Democrats

October 1999: Appointed to the Privy Council

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