Kennedy clings on as Lib Dems sharpen the knives

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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy was clinging to his position as leader of the Liberal Democrats as he vowed to continue after a "clear-the-air" meeting with MPs.

But his long-term future appeared precarious at best after his deputy, Sir Menzies Campbell, pointedly declined to offer his full backing after a crisis meeting between the two men yesterday afternoon.

Mr Kennedy faced a frenzy of speculation about his position amid claims that he had been told to go with dignity. Liberal Democrat MPs queued up to warn that he had to improve his performance or quit.

But last night he attempted to dissipate the growing crisis surrounding his position, insisting that he had been offered an "overwhelming level of support" at the weekly meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs, despite a day of fevered briefings at Westminster when questions about his leadership spilled into the open.

Aides said MPs lined up to back Mr Kennedy at last night's meeting in committee room 12, the last gathering of the parliamentary party before Christmas. In a highly unusual statement to journalists in the corridor outside the meeting, Mr Kennedy claimed the meeting had united the party.

"I have been very grateful for the overwhelming level of support that was expressed for me and my continuing leadership of the party that was never seriously in doubt," he said. "We go forward as a united party optimistic about the future."

He condemned "anonymous comments being retold through the press about the problems of the party", and insisted: "This is a very good year-end clearing of the air."

But only hours earlier, Sir Menzies fuelled speculation that Mr Kennedy was likely to stand down, declining to back him when he emerged after a series of meetings in the leader's Commons office.

Asked whether Mr Kennedy should stay or go, he replied simply: "I have had a long and profitable relationship with the leader of the party." Asked whether Mr Kennedy should go sooner or later, he replied "no comment".

The meeting came at the end of a day of drama and intrigue at Westminster after a row in Mr Kennedy's shadow cabinet on Tuesday reopened wrangling over his future. Mr Kennedy spent the day holding meetings with colleagues, while the party's Chief Whip, Andrew Stunell, took soundings from MPs about his future.

Even allies warned that Mr Kennedy had to raise his game amid alarm within the party about its response to the threat from David Cameron. Some suggested that Mr Kennedy may be on probation until the party's spring conference.

Meanwhile, those opposed to Mr Kennedy were divided over who should take over, reflecting a split between the traditional liberal wing of the party and the so-called "Orange Book" group.A senior party source said: "The feeling in the party is that if there was someone better we would go for it, but there's no easy answer. There are possibilities, but with all of them there are problems.

"If Kennedy were to stand down, there would be quite a few who would put their hats in the ring and go for it. But there is no one who is ready to challenge him. The majority view is that the party could do with some fresh blood at the top, but there is no critical mass around a person. There is plenty of fresh blood coming up, but no one is in a position to mount a credible challenge."

An MP added: "There's disillusionment with the leadership. He has seemed to vanish at the moment when Labour was in trouble and the Tories were completely self-obsessed."

But one senior MP said a leadership challenge would be a "victory for David Cameron". Another said: "This is the wrong time to be changing the leader, but it's now for Charles to show real leadership, and if he fails to do that he will suffer the consequences."

Criticism of Mr Kennedy's leadership spilled out into the open. Lord Carlile of Berriew told the BBC that "some of us harken back to the leadership we were given by Paddy Ashdown for a number of years". He added: "There is a legitimate question at the present time as to whether Charles Kennedy is providing the kind of leadership that the party needs."

A leading article in the Liberal Democrat magazine, The Liberal, openly called on Mr Kennedy to quit.

Waiting in the wings

SIR MENZIES CAMPBELL, 64

Foreign affairs spokesman and the "big beast" on the Liberal Democrat benches. Shaped the party's successful opposition to the Iraq war. Former Olympic runner and leading lawyer. Universally respected as a statesman, but his age means he would be seen only as a caretaker leader.

SIMON HUGHES, 54

Ambitious party president who gave up his high-profile position as home affairs spokesman to campaign in London mayoral elections. A charismatic and tireless campaigner on the left who is adored by the party rank and file but would face opposition in the parliamentary party.

DAVID LAWS, 40

Bright and articulate young work and pensions spokesman who is one of the standard bearers of the party's modernising wing. He was a key figure behind the controversial Orange Book, advocating a system of social insurance to replace the NHS.

NICK CLEGG, 38

Former MEP who entered Parliament in May, for rapid promotion to the front bench as a foreign affairs spokesman. An amiable moderniser seen by many as a future leader, but highly unlikely to mount a serious bid for the top job so soon.

MARK OATEN, 41

Ambitious home affairs spokesman who spearheaded opposition to anti-terror laws. Reputation as an effective operator, and punches above his weight in negotiations with Charles Clarke and David Davis. His stance on civil liberties has enhanced his standing with the party's grass roots.

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