Hour by hour, one-time allies came forward to bury him

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Indy Politics

Support for the Liberal Democrat leader ebbed away during a day of political intrigue, culminating in an extraordinary public statement by 25 of his 62 MPs that they would not serve him beyond the weekend.

But backed by his small group of advisers, known as "the bunker", Mr Kennedy defiantly clung to the hope that his leadership would be saved by the party's 75,000 members.

Whilst party members and MPs sympathised with their leader's struggle against drink, his colleagues started a co-ordinated telephone campaign aimed at gathering support among MPs for a way to make him resign.

Ed Davey, the party's education spokesman and a potential leadership contender, and Sarah Teather, the local government spokeswoman, led the charge, securing the backing of 23 colleagues for a statement making it clear that "we would no longer be prepared to serve under his leadership after this weekend and wish to give him the next couple of days to reflect on his position".

If the threat of resignations does not force him out, MPs are plotting a humiliating vote of no confidence when they meet on Wednesday. One Kennedy loyalist said: "My heart is still with Charles, but my head says he's got to go. If there is a vote on Wednesday my head says I would have to vote against him."

In the hardest personal blow for Mr Kennedy, Matthew Taylor, who ran his leadership campaign in 1999, joined those publicly calling on him to stand down. Mr Taylor, a long-time supporter and close friend of Mr Kennedy, said: "It is not a matter of choice. There is not a world in which everything is all right again for Charles."

Yesterday he revealed that he had decided to leave the front bench after the general election because he had believed Mr Kennedy should stand down. He urged Mr Kennedy to quit "for his sake, for his family's sake" so he could concentrate on fighting his drink problem. He said: "I'm worried for him and his family if he can't get this in hand."

The main contenders for Mr Kennedy's job stayed out of the conspiracy, mindful of the lesson learnt by Michael Heseltine, who ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1990, that the assassin never inherits the crown.

Mark Oaten, the home affairs spokesman, was abroad in Austria. Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader, indicated that he would be a candidate if there were a vacancy. Simon Hughes, another potential contender, was silent.

But other senior figures in the party warned that Mr Kennedy was not the only one suffering from the effects of his drink problem as concerns about the long-term political fallout from the affair rapidly turned into outright insurrection.

One MP said: "There is a lot of compassion for the man, but not the idea that the leader can survive in this situation. It cannot happen, it won't happen."

Anger was directed at Mr Kennedy's cabal of ultra-loyal advisers, which includes Lord Razzall, the party's campaigns chief, his press secretary Jackie Rowley, and his "gatekeeper" Anna Wareing. One member of the frontbench team said: "I think this is it. The game's up. We are not going to sit around and see the party damaged."

Chris Davies, the party's leader in the European Parliament, started the onslaught on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, by describing Mr Kennedy as a "dead man walking".

Vince Cable, the treasury spokesman was deputed to deliver to Mr Kennedy a letter signed by 11 frontbench members before Christmas calling on him to step down.

In public Mr Cable stopped short - just - of threatening his own resignation in a lunchtime interview, but made it clear that the end game was near, declaring his leader's position "not sustainable".

In public a string of senior figures openly called on Mr Kennedy to quit, before a trickle and then a flood started to offer their own resignation if he failed to stand down as even loyal colleagues joined the mutiny.

Allies warned that they wanted to spare the party and its leader the trauma of a week on death row when Parliament returns on Monday.

MATTHEW TAYLOR, FORMER PARTY CHAIRMAN: "After the general election it became clear that Charles has suffered continuing problems with alcohol, leading many of those close to him to privately advise that he could not tackle this challenge whilst he remained leader. I have been a close ally of Charles', but he needs to reconsider his plan to re-stand."

NORMAN LAMB, TRADE AND INDUSTRY SPOKESMAN: "For me the central issue has always been the alcohol. But I think the difficulty is that that alcohol problem leads to other difficulties. Charles needs to recognise the seriousness of his situation and stand down. If he is intent on continuing, then I don't see my position as being tenable in the shadow cabinet."

ANDREW GEORGE, INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT SPOKESMAN: "I cannot remain in a shadow cabinet if I do not believe that the present situation is sustainable. It is not credible for a party leader to have the passive support of the wider membership without first ensuring that he has the confidence of the vast majority, if not the whole, of his parliamentary colleagues."

SANDRA GIDLEY, SPOKESWOMAN FOR OLDER PEOPLE: "There is a certain amount of sadness that this problem was dumped on us in this way and Charles didn't feel he could share the problem with us. What Charles has to think about is whether he has the strength to fight the triple demons of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the drink problem."

NORMAN BAKER, ENVIRONMENT SPOKESMAN: "It is increasingly clear that there is disquiet in the party at large at the present position. If Charles insists on putting himself forward for re-election, there must be another candidate in the frame to give members of the party an oppor-tunity to back him or sack him."

VINCE CABLE, TREASURY SPOKESMAN: "I think it would be better frankly if we reflected over the weekend and see whether we could find an amicable consensus on the way forward which doesn't involve a major confrontation of this kind."

CHRIS DAVIES, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT LEADER IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT: "Just remember, if people do not put up against Charles, that should not be regarded as a vote of confidence. It simply means that people don't like to kick a man when he's down. And the sore will just keep on running as the months progress."