Kennedy exclusive: 'I have been in denial. But I will fight on'

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But the beleaguered Liberal Democrat leader suffered a humiliating haemorrhage of support as 25 of his 62 MPs, including almost half of his Commons frontbench team, declared that he had lost their confidence and they would not serve under him. They urged him to stand down by Monday.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Kennedy accused the critical MPs of being out of touch with the party's 75,000 members - and insisted he still enjoyed "overwhelming" grassroots backing after receiving messages of support from thousands of members. He made a last-ditch plea to his MPs to consult constituency activists this weekend before "rushing to hasty judgements".

With MPs deserting him hour by hour - just a day after he admitted he was being treated for alcoholism and offered a snap leadership election - Mr Kennedy appealed over their heads to the party's members to save his political skin. In the interview, he admitted he had been "in denial" about his drink problem for a long time before he agreed to have treatment in May 2004. He insisted he had now conquered it - and said his doctors agreed.

Asked if he regretted lying to the media about his condition, he replied: "I feel much better for having said it. Indeed, I wish I could have said it before. I wouldn't have said it unless I felt strong enough to say it. You have got to be convinced in yourself before you can be absolutely upfront with people.

"Part of the learning process of how you deal with a drink problem is that, whilst each case is unique, you don't realise that a denial process - even when you're feeling well - is one of the symptoms. I didn't appreciate that. That's something I have learnt.

"I'm an upfront kind of person. That's an aspect of it that you have to work through for yourself. I am glad to say I have worked through it."

A bullish Mr Kennedy denied that he was now "in denial" about his political position. "As politicians go, I probably know more about the meaning of the word 'denial' now than most others. I can assure you I am not in denial. My head is firmly screwed on as ever when it comes to rational political judgements," he said. "I have got a duty to this party. I just know from reading and listening to what thousands of party members are telling me, that they think it would be a dereliction of duty for me to walk away from this job. I have no intention of doing so.

"We have had a lot of feedback from the members. It has gone through the roof in the last 18 hours. They are overwhelmingly supporting my position personally and politically. That has got to be weighed in the balance by a party that is a 'one member, one vote' party.

"If those members feel in any sense they are being short-changed or disenfranchised on the most fundamental issue of all, we will start to lose active engagement of members. We have an awful lot of elected members or would-be elected members facing the May local elections. They want the lead coming from here to be a united lead."

Mr Kennedy hopes to head off a vote of confidence threatened by his MP critics next week by arguing that one was not necessary because he had already set in train a leadership contest. "The order of events is that leadership elections are decided by the governing body of the party [the federal executive]. It will make those decisions on Monday," he said. "We mustn't let our members down by short-circuiting their right to choose the leader."

He went on: "David Cameron, at the outset, didn't speak for a majority of his MPs. Now he is in a very strong position as party leader because his members have spoken. It would be an irony if, two decades after the launch of the party, the Liberal Democrats, the pioneers of genuine party democracy, were to find ourselves slipping behind the Conservative Party."

The Liberal Democrat leader insisted he could carry on even though 11 members of his 23-strong frontbench team handed in a letter yesterday urging him to consider his position. He did not think the rebel frontbenchers had betrayed him: "You don't think in terms of betrayal. You deal with problems, issues and individuals as they arise."

He said he hoped the 11 would continue to serve in his team and played down reports that he would sack the dissidents. "At the moment, I think it is by far the preferable approach for the party that people think calmly and sensibly about the position over the coming days and we go forward as a united force. That is infinitely the best way to go forward. The picture is a moving one. Other people are coming out with a robustly supportive stance. Everybody needs to pause for breath and assess this more coolly."

Asked if he would be considering his own position over the weekend, he replied: "My position remains unchanged. On the personal front, if there were any doubts in my own mind about my personal fitness in every sense of that word, I would not need anybody to tell me that. I would have reached that conclusion instantaneously and acted accordingly. Revealing his pitch if he is challenged for the leadership, Mr Kennedy presented himself as the unity candidate who could unite the two wings of the party - what he called the "economic liberals" seeking a shift to the right and the "social liberals" wanting a move to the left.

"I feel that the two are completely coterminous," he said. "People do need to reflect on whether someone [else] has got a better prospectus for bringing that together as modern liberal democracy, with a new Conservative leadership and changes happening in the Government, by carrying a united party behind them."

He went on: "If you look back at the last six years, there is no question whatsoever that from the division lobbies in the Commons to the general sense of camaraderie, we have been the most united of any British political party. That is a great, great asset that we squander at our peril. One of the factors in that has been the approach of the leadership. I do seek to bring people together. I don't see there is someone better placed [than me] because people trust me in this party. My parliamentary colleagues trust me when it comes to political judgement. Our members trust me when it comes to taking the right decisions.

"You can have great change, you have got to ask 'what has changed in terms of the party's in-tray?' the morning after. The same issues are still there to be reconciled."

A day of open revolt

7.00am: Chris Davies MEP says that Charles Kennedy is a "dead man walking".

7.10am: Sandra Gidley MP: A "tall order" for Kennedy to lead and to fight alcoholism.

8.10am: Baroness Tonge: Kennedy is "destroying" the party.

8.50am: The party chairman, Paul Holmes, says Kennedy is "absolutely determined to go on".

11am: Kennedy leaves London home, citing "quite overwhelming" support.

1.10pm: Vincent Cable, Treasury spokesman: Kennedy's position "not sustainable".

1.20pm: Andrew George, the international development spokesman, reveals he has threatened to quit if Kennedy does not resign.

2pm: Kennedy tells The Independent: ''I'm the only figure who can unite the party''.

2.20pm: Norman Lamb, DTI spokesman, also threatens to quit.

2.30pm: Rumours circlulate that more frontbenchers are considering their position.

4pm: Kennedy's spokeswoman says that he will "not in any way, shape or form" resign.

4.45pm: Letter from 11 frontbenchers calling for resignation is delivered.

5pm: Lib Dem shadow cabinet promises a statement.

5.27pm: Alcohol Focus Scotland says Kennedy should not lose his job and should be given support.

5.56pm: Kennedy arrives home citing "overwhelming" support from ordinary party members and urges MPs "to reflect on things".

6.18pm: Statement from 25 Lib Dem MPs calls on Kennedy to reconsider his position.

6.57pm: Kennedy's spokeswoman: He will not stand down.

10.30pm: BBC2 Newsnight poll reveals 33 Lib Dem MPs think his position untenable, 13 back him, 16 say nothing.

11.02pm: More evidence of support slipping away comes in poll of 284 party activists in Daily Telegraph: 27 per cent want him to stay, 65 per cent want new leader.