Charles Kennedy: My health? No worries

Rebellious Liberal Democrat MPs raised their leader's health in private meetings with him last week. But, he tells Marie Woolf, there's no need for anxiety on that score
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The Independent Online

For a man who has spent the past week being stabbed between the shoulder blades more times than Julius Caesar, Charles Kennedy sounded remarkably chipper. Being told he's not up to leading the Liberal Democrats? "Good can come out of this," he responds. MPs openly speculating on a leadership bid? "It's been a busy week, yes," he laughs. Colleagues telling him to shape up or ship out? "A cathartic experience," he says.

So is this man before us, answering The Independent on Sunday's questions, just whistling as he walks past the cemetery, or has he really put a nightmare of a week, in which newspapers declared him a political dead duck, behind him? From his manner, it's hard to tell. Saturday's leader was not Ashen-Faced Kennedy, but Chatshow Charlie, bouncing back from the travails of the past few days, swatting away the usual questions about his alleged "lifestyle" (ie drinking) with his natural bonhomie. But he's good at that. No one has ever doubted it. What they have doubted, particularly in the past week, is whether he is any longer the right man to lead his party.

The latest troubles appeared to blow up from nowhere. But they didn't, because, below the surface, Liberal Democrats were not happy. This became apparent at a meeting of Charles Kennedy's top team last week when Sandra Gidley, spokeswoman on women and the elderly, raised the question of Mr Kennedy's performance and asked that Andrew Stunell, the chief whip, hold talks with MPs. Behind her, in what appeared to be an orchestrated operation, piled a series of spokesmen who all raised serious doubts about his performance. Among them was Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader. Only two MPs, Mark Oaten and Lembit Opik, spoke out in support.

The trigger for the questions about Mr Kennedy's future had come weeks earlier, when he aborted a trip to Newcastle, and gave what was described as an uncertain performance in a speech at the LSE. Even loyal MPs questioned whether he was fully committed to the job, and for weeks there were dark mutterings in Westminster.

With talk of a possible leadership bid by Simon Hughes, MPs began to line up behind Sir Menzies Campbell, who emerged as a "stop Simon candidate". Mark Oaten, who ostensibly offered support to Mr Kennedy, also made clear he would stand for the leadership if a vacancy to emerge. To bolster support, Mr Kennedy held one-to-one meetings with his leading MPs. They told him frankly they wanted him to raise his game. Others raised questions about his health.

A meeting of all his MPs, billed as offering full support, was far from that. Although a string of junior MPs, including the new MP for Cheadle, Mark Hunter, supported Charles Kennedy, others raised questions about his "personal habits". Liberal Democrats discussed whether to stand down from the front bench in protest, to force him to resign.

Sir Menzies Campbell was fingered as the chief plotter after failing to offer full support following a one-to-one meeting with the leader. This accusation provoked anger among many MPs who in a Machiavellian twist suggested the accusation was deliberately cooked up by allies of Mark Oaten to try to force Sir Menzies out of a contest - before it had even started. On radio, Sir Menzies offered his full support for the leader so long as he was in office.

And so it goes on. Mr Kennedy woke up yesterday to another string of critical headlines announcing that Simon Hughes, Sir Menzies Campbell and Mark Oaten were limbering up for a leadership contest.

Mr Kennedy's response? "I don't worry about that at all."

But the question on his MPs' lips is: can Mr Kennedy bounce back? Does he have the appetite to continue and take the party forward? Without hesitation Mr Kennedy insists: "Oh I certainly have the appetite. If there is nothing else to be said for the events of the past week, it does actually oblige you to ask yourself that very question in a very honest, personalised way.

"You know I would be deceiving people if I said, 'Of course that question hasn't arisen and I have not asked it directly of myself' - to which the answer is a resounding 'yes'."

So has Mr Kennedy asked himself whether he should step down? "What I am not saying is 'I have considered resignation.'"

Even Mr Kennedy's sternest critics admit he is hard to beat for personal appeal and political judgement. At his best he is one of the country's most popular and engaging politicians. But when he saw members of his front bench last week, a number raised the issue of his health, amid rumours that he might have experienced a problem with drink. His "personal habits" were also raised by MPs last week. With rumours swirling around Westminster that his health has not been good, can he reassure the parliamentary party that any such problem has been put behind him? "If there are anxieties there, there need not be. That is all I can say," he states frankly. "All I can demonstrate to people is that I am firing on all cylinders."

Despite the battering he has received, even from his political allies, he seems full of energy and even optimistic about the future. In January he plans to make a keynote speech on policy, setting out a new direction for the party. He says he will give "a clear steer in which direction" the party should be going in his speech, adding that he has not sought to direct party policy, during a series of reviews, because "he could be accused of trying to bounce people".

"That is not my style," he says. "The downside is that you get the type of criticism ... that there is a sense of drift. But that is the price you have got to pay if you are the leader and doing your job properly."

He adds: "They know what my style is like and this is a good time to review it."

He is also resolved to address criticism that he has become too cosseted in his office, kept away from his MPs by proprietorial aides. MPs have told him privately that Lord Razzall, chairman of campaigns and communications and a key ally, has been overprotective.

Mr Kennedy, who has a reputation as one of Parliament's most approachable MPs, says the accessibility issue will be addressed.

"The principal thing is me in the middle of all of this, and there is a clear positive desire to have more time with me. I have got to structure the way my own office works to enable that to happen," he says.

But in what could be interpreted as a coded warning to those plotting against him, Mr Kennedy also says he wants to promote fresh talent in the party, including new MPs who have, on the whole, proved supportive during his leadership crisis. He says he wants them to be "more plugged in" and involved in "party management, party organisation, planning and so forth".

"I am not planning anything imminent in terms of personnel, but I think that there are ways about how people plug into the party machine. Now that we have this much bigger parliamentary party there is a lot more that can be done to tap that talent," he says.

Is he planning to sack plotters from his team and propose an imminent reshuffle? "Not at the moment, no. And you wouldn't expect me to answer that," he says. "If changes have to be made, changes have to be made. But I don't expect it to come to that - and I very much hope it doesn't."

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