How a public confession killed Kennedy's career

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For some days, Charles Kennedy had been toying with the idea of calling a leadership election and making a public confession about his alcoholism when his hand was suddenly forced at 4pm last Thursday.

With hindsight, he might still be a candidate in the leadership race if he had not made his dramatic announcement to pre-empt media revelations about his drink problem. It meant that his "personal statement" at 5.50pm was made from a position of weakness rather than strength - and fuelled media criticism that he had lied about his condition for years.

He decided to go public after ITV News told his office it intended to disclose his secret on its 6.30pm bulletin. By coincidence, the reporter was someone he knew well: Daisy McAndrew, the chief political correspondent, was his press secretary from 1999 to 2001. Although dubbed the "blond assassin," the truth is more prosaic: the crucial tip that Mr Kennedy had been confronted about his drinking by four senior party figures in 2004 originally came from an executive at the ITV network who is friends with a Liberal Democrat MP.

When he made his statement, Mr Kennedy had some reason to believe it would calm the dangerous tide of speculation about his future. Privately, he thought he was giving his MP critics what they wanted.

A letter signed by 11 frontbench members in December, organised by the Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, urged Mr Kennedy to consider his position and call a leadership election. He judged that party members should be given the opportunity to vote for him in that contest.

His rebel MPs, however, thought otherwise. They saw the offer of an election as a device to avoid a real one - a "back me or sack me" plea by Mr Kennedy rather than the full-scale contest since potential candidates such as Sir Menzies Campbell and Mark Oaten had promised not to stand against him.

By Friday morning, it was clear that his enemies were determined to kill his leadership - even if that meant damaging the party in the process. They took to the airwaves, threatening to force a vote of confidence amongst MPs.

The Cable letter, never sent last month, was finally delivered to Mr Kennedy's Commons office - dubbed "the bunker" by critics who accuse him of surrounding himself by acolytes who protect him from painful truths.

To twist the knife, two young MPs, Ed Davey and Sarah Teather, organised another round-robin - a statement, signed by 25 of the party's 62 MPs, saying they were not prepared to serve under him if he was still leader by today. Released to the media at 6.18pm, it proved to be the coup de grâce.

Mr Kennedy spent Friday in his "bunker." He rang round his MPs, trying to prop up his support but realised it was slipping away. He gave defiant interviews to The Sunday Times and The Independent.

When I interviewed him on Friday afternoon, Mr Kennedy had one final throw of the dice to make. He was genuinely buoyed by several hundred e-mails from party members and the public urging him to stay on. They were no figment of his imagination - his aides showed them to me. One man even rang HQ to join the party after "the most principled statement I have ever heard from a politician".

Arriving at his home in Kennington, south London, on Friday evening, Mr Kennedy stuck to his line that a period of reflection was needed over the weekend. By now, he knew that he needed to reflect too: he would not have the quiet family weekend he wanted.

Although his office issued another defiant statement, Mr Kennedy began consulting close allies including Lord Razzall of Mortlake and Lord Newby of Rothwell about whether he should stand down - a process that continued on Saturday morning.

Mr Kennedy remained convinced that he could still win the ballot of the party members. But he gradually came round to the view that he should go. "It was the cumulative effect," said one insider. "He realised the MPs would stop at nothing, that it was damaging the party and he put the party first." He also took the advice of his wife Sarah, who remained remarkably calm amid the storm engulfing him.

When he phoned the party's officers on Saturday to say he was minded to go, Simon Hughes, the president, offered him a last-minute lifeline: he should stand down until after the May local elections and then be a candidate in a leadership contest. But Mr Kennedy judged that would merely prolong the party's agony - and the long-term damage to it.

The die was cast, and at 2pm, his press secretary Jackie Rowley phoned the Press Association to say he would be making a statement an hour later.