Charles Kennedy: Now you see him, now you don't

He dismisses speculation about his health and occasional absences as 'conference bar talk'. Voters warm to his faults-and-all personality and his supposed blunders have revealed a politician more in touch with the electorate than his rivals
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The Independent Online

When, or if, Charles Kennedy stands up to address his party's spring conference in Southport today, there will be a collective sigh of relief that he has made it to the podium.

When, or if, Charles Kennedy stands up to address his party's spring conference in Southport today, there will be a collective sigh of relief that he has made it to the podium.

The golden boy of the Liberal Democrats has suffered a series of unfortunate absences, culminating in last week's failure to take part in one of the biggest occasions in the parliamentary calendar. While his strategic vision has helped to raise the party to a level of public support unequalled for seven decades, there have been several opportunities to put the Liberal Democrat case when Kennedy was conspicuously not there.

Making an impromptu reply to the Chancellor's Budget speech is one of the most testing tasks the leader of an opposition party has to tackle. Last week, the job was handed at very short notice to Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman. The Deputy Leader, Menzies Campbell, stood in at even shorter notice to handle Prime Minister's Questions.

That might not matter, but for other little mishaps which have fed Westminster's febrile rumour mill. Last summer, when Gordon Brown formally announced that there was to be no referendum on British membership of the euro, the Prime Minister was there listening, so was the Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith - but no Charles Kennedy. He was not due to speak, and had decided to watch proceedings on television in his office.

ITN interviewed Kennedy two weeks ago, giving him a chance to respond to a speech by Tony Blair warning that the terrorist threat in Britain has not receded. Television executives decided not to use the interview for "editorial reasons", although a short clip went out on Channel Four News. ITN said that there had been no complaint from the Liberal Democrats.

During the Liberal Democrats' autumn conference in Bournemouth three years ago, Kennedy was booked for a live interview with Andrew Neil. The interview was cancelled at short notice. Even when the programme offered to send a camera crew to Kennedy's hotel room, his staff still insisted that he was not available. He was, however, able to make a party political broadcast that same day.

Kennedy arrived in Southport for this weekend's conference still feeling under the weather after a stomach bug, and walked in to discover a morass of speculation that he was going to have to call off his big speech. He dismissed that as "conference bar talk". His staff say that Kennedy worked in his office until 8pm on Tuesday, went straight home and was taken ill in the night. He went to his office in the morning to see his parliamentary engagements through, but realised that he was too ill to risk putting in a public appearance, which would necessarily have lasted at least two hours.

Despite the cumulative damage from incidents like these, Charles Kennedy's problems now do not bear comparison with those that beset Iain Duncan Smith a year ago. Unlike the former Tory leader, Kennedy, by contrast, is clever, personable, popular and well-known.

The leadership election that followed the resignation of his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, in 1999 was not so much a contest as a coronation. In what may have been a fit of jealousy, Ashdown had banished his young rival to the equivalent of Siberia, by making him party spokesman on agriculture. Even from that remote spot, Kennedy was better known than anyone else on the Liberal Democrat front bench because of his lucrative sideline as a radio and television performer. He was one of the few serious politicians to appear on Have I Got News For You and hold his own.

Even his bad habits - his heavy smoking, his David Bowie record collection, his reputation prior to his marriage 18 months ago to Sarah Gurling as a ladies' man and his fondness for Scotch whisky - have contributed to his public image as a rounded human being. While Tony Blair looks like an artificial construct, Kennedy seems real, if flawed.

To complete the picture, there is his Highland Scots accent and exotic family background. He was born in Inverness, the son and grandson of crofters. His father, Ian Kennedy, is a fiddle player of some repute. A clever debater at Glasgow University, where he was inspired by Roy Jenkins to join the new Social Democratic Party, he did a postgraduate year at Indiana University and on his return was adopted SDP candidate for the apparently hopeless seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye for the 1983 election. In an extraordinary upset, he took the seat from the Tories, becoming an MP at the age of just 23.

He was young, but not naive. One of only five SDP MPs returned after the next election, he was the first to see that the game was up for David Owen's bold attempt to mould a new party. The young Kennedy effectively led the campaign for a merger with the Liberal Party, the first of many occasions when he displayed a shrewd judgement at a critical moment.

In his first interview as party leader five years ago, Kennedy delighted the Tories by calling for a softening of the law on cannabis, which the Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe regarded as a major political blunder. She learnt the hard way that Kennedy was actually the more in tune with public opinion.

Last month, the Tories were celebrating what they thought was another Kennedy blunder, when he ordered his MPs not to co-operate with the Butler inquiry into the origins of the Iraq war. Then this month, Michael Howard withdrew support for the inquiry.

On the bigger question of the Iraq war, some thought that Kennedy was taking a risk by maintaining his opposition, even after hostilities had begun. This was of a piece with another of Kennedy's strategic decisions, which appeared reckless at the time, when he ended Paddy Ashdown's love-in with the Labour Party, forgoing the chance to sit on a Cabinet committee. Back in 1998, Kennedy was one of only two Liberal Democrat MPs who refused to endorse a Blair-Ashdown statement on the future of the pact.

Both decisions are now paying off handsomely, as Tony Blair struggles to overcome the political entanglement of the Iraq war. After June's local elections and next year's general election, the Liberals may well emerge with the strongest political base they have had since 1935, much of it due to Kennedy's ability to make the right call on the big questions.

Yet, watchful eyes are following every step Kennedy takes in Southport this weekend, as people ask themselves whether the Liberal Democrats' youngish leader really wants the job, which he claimed on the Today programme yesterday to be enjoying "very much".

Liberal Democrats are known for being do-gooders who love to pile policy on policy as they dream about what they would do in the unlikely event that they ever came to power. Kennedy comes perilously close to treating all that mountain of policy as a joke. That might show a healthy grasp of reality, but sometimes it seems as if he cannot be bothered.

But consider the strange life he has led: having stepped straight from being a student politician to being a full-time politician, with no intervening experience of the world outside. Aged 44, he can look back on more than 20 years in the Commons, and forward to another 20 - and in a party prone to do daft vote-losing things such as voting to allow 16-year-olds to appear in pornographic films. In January 2007, he will pass the point at which half of his life has been spent as an MP. With politics ahead of him, politics behind him, a life of uninterrupted politics, who can blame Charlie Kennedy if occasionally he reaches for a glass of Glenmorangie?