Charles Kennedy would be welcome into a frontline position in the Liberal Democrats as soon as he is ready, his successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, said yesterday.
Speaking at the Scottish Parliament's Festival of Politics, Sir Menzies said that Mr Kennedy was right to resign in January, so that he could deal with a drink problem.
But he added: "When he is ready then, if I am leader of the party, I would be happy to welcome him back because he has a rare quality which not many politicians possess in 2006. He connects directly with the public in a way that many politicians simply cannot hope to do."
Mr Kennedy has brushed aside talk that he might challenge Sir Menzies for the leadership, but has hinted that he retains hope of an eventual comeback. Last month, answering written questions from Independent readers, one of whom asked whether he thought he would ever lead his party again, Mr Kennedy wrote: "Who knows what the future holds?"
However, friend of the former leader fear that his chances could be damaged by a book by a Times journalist, Greg Hurst, which will give details of occasions when his drinking effected Mr Kennedy's public performance. The book's publication will coincide with next month's annual Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Mr Kennedy will be making a speech there, in his first setpiece appearance in front of a party audience since he resigned. There has been speculation about whether the Liberal Democrats would undergo a second change of leader before the next general election. Sir Menzies has been criticised for poor poll ratings, and has admitted that he has had a struggle taking on Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions. One Newsnight poll showed that 53 per cent of those polled still believed Kennedy was the best party leader for the Liberal Democrats, despite his drink problem, compared with 26 per cent for Sir Menzies.
But under Sir Menzies' leadership, the Liberal Democrats scored a notable by-election victory when they defeated Labour in Dunfermline and West Fife, the seat adjoining Gordon Brown's, and came close to pulling off another resounding victory in Bromley and Chislehurst, which is normally a solidly Tory seat. The most recent national opinion poll, this week's ICM/Guardian survey, suggested that the Liberal Democrats' have gained five percentage points at Labour's expense.