Kennedy: 'I don't know if I was victim of whispering campaign'

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Charles Kennedy gave a frank account yesterday of the illness that led to him to miss the Budget earlier this month and admitted he was "surprised" that the "caustic reaction" in the media continued for as long as it did.

Charles Kennedy gave a frank account yesterday of the illness that led to him to miss the Budget earlier this month and admitted he was "surprised" that the "caustic reaction" in the media continued for as long as it did.

Mr Kennedy, answering questions from readers of The Independent, said he did "not know" whether he had been the victim of a whispering campaign among his own MPs and said he preferred to concentrate "on the positive" rather than "negative". But the Liberal Democrat leader said he understood why his MPs had been worried over his illness and confirmed that he had been forced personally to reassure them he had fully recovered his health.

In a confident and good-humoured performance at The Independent's You Ask the Questions debate, Mr Kennedy denied that he had been told he drinks too much. He said drink "was not the issue" and he was known at Westminster as "fairly sociable person".

Mr Kennedy, who was said to have been vomiting repeatedly while suffering from the stomach bug, joked that it would have been a more "gory" option to turn up to Prime Minister's Questions and the Budget than not to attend.

He said, with the benefit of hindsight, he still would have chosen not to turn up.

"Without going into the gory details of the ailment that I suffered I can assure you that had I tried to spend half an hour, let alone two and half hours in the Commons chamber, it would have made the headlines of the next few days pale in comparison," he said. "So it was the lesser of two evils."

There was furious speculation after Mr Kennedy was ill that he may have been suffering from stage fright or a more serious condition. Although he managed to make a keynote speech to delegates at the party's spring conference in Southport, he was seen sweating profusely and shaking.

Mr Kennedy admitted that while he was ill he had lost several nights' sleep. But yesterday he appeared to have recovered his strength as he joked about the episode.

Mr Kennedy denied that he had been taken aback by the reaction in the press which he described as "caustic". "Was I surprised by the reaction. No? I thought there would be a caustic reaction. I was a bit surprised that it went as long as it did," he admitted.

He acknowledged that it was a serious matter for a party leader not to turn up to a Budget debate, and was not surprised at the concern that followed. "For an opposition party leader to miss Prime Minister's Question Time is one thing - I think in four years I have missed it three times. But the Budget thing is different," he said.

"The problem is you have to sit for an hour for the Budget and half an hour for the Leader of the Opposition before it comes to me and that was just not going to be possible."

Asked if there was a whispering campaign within his own party about his health, he said: "I do not know and I am not making inquiries because I am better to remain on the positive rather than frittering away any time on the negative."

The Liberal Democrat leader gave his strongest indication yet that he would not be prepared to prop up a minority Labour government. But if there was a hung parliament, he said his inclination would be to let the minority government continue alone.

In a speech in which he set out his philosophy for 21st century "liberal society" he also condemned "panicky measures" to protect Britain from terrorism, attacked David Blunkett for undermining Britain's "fundamental liberties" and warned against the establishment of "a police state". The Liberal Democrat leader said that "emergency" measures introduced by the Home Secretary to protect Britain from terrorists were "draconian".

He criticised restrictions on the right to trial which he said "jettison the fundamentals of the rule of law" and condemned the "emergency provisions" that have allowed foreign nationals, suspected of terrorism, to be detained indefinitely without trial.

"I hardly need remind you that, once fundamental liberties are withdrawn to deal with one emergency, it is easy enough to find other emergencies to apply them to," he said.

He added: "There are times when it is appropriate to strike a compromise between safety and liberty."

War, alcohol and tax: the Lib Dem leader comes clean

This is an edited transcript of last night's 'You ask the Questions' with Charles Kennedy, held at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Westminster:

Nicole Sheineman: If you had imagined that your absence from the budget debate would have caused such a furore, would you have got up from your sick bed?

Charles Kennedy: No I wouldn't have. Without going into the gory details of the ailment that I suffered, I can assure you that had I tried to spend half an hour, let alone two and half hours, in the Commons chamber it would have made the headlines of the next few days pale into comparison. I would have changed it, but I knew that it was a recipe for disaster in every sense of the word. So it was the lesser of two evils.

Simon Kelner,Editor-in-Chief of The Independent: Were you surprised at the reaction?

CK: No altogether no. For an opposition party leader to miss Prime Minister's question time is one thing - I think in four years I have missed it three times. On one occasion I got flu and on another occasion Sarah (Mrs Kennedy) and myself had got married the previous weekend and gone on our honeymoon. In fact I had to be persuaded into going. I wanted to stay and not miss it. I had a reputation for being somewhat normal and to turn up at Prime Minister's questions three days after having got married would have destroyed any credibility I had. Occasionally people do miss PMQs. But the Budget thing is different obviously. The problem is you have to sit for an hour for the Budget and half an hour for the Leader of the Opposition before it comes to me and that was just not going to be possible.

Was I surprised by the reaction? No. I thought there would be a caustic reaction. I was a bit surprised that it went as long as it did. That surprised me.

Steve Richards, Chief Political Commentator, The Independent: Was it true you had to reassure your MPs you would take appropriate action to get well, was that right?

CK: Well, yes. It is quite understandable if MPs are informed that a leader is ill and there is a question mark against the Budget statement, then people are concerned. The leader is pretty essential to the whole operation.

Guy Bullock: Has anyone ever told you you drink too much?

CK: Not quite in those terms, no. Across the road where I have been for 20 years people get a fair take of what kind of human being you are and I'm known for better or worse as a fairly sociable individual But no, this is not the issue.

Jonathan Ash-Edwards: How can the Liberal Democrats realistically hope to overtake the Tories as the main opposition when the Tories advocate low taxes and a key Lib Dem policy is 50p in the pound for top earners?

CK: There is a growing understanding and acceptance in this country that you can't get something for nothing. That if you do want viable social policies the money has got to come from somewhere.

The caricature at the moment is that Labour equals higher taxes, Conservatives equals lower taxes and the Lib Dems equals fairer taxes.

Patrick Fox: In the event of a hung parliament would you take the Liberal Democrats into a coalition with the Labour party?

CK: In previous elections a hung parliament has been the raging talk of the day, but if you if you look at history, a hung parliament remains very much the exception rather than the rule. In the '87 election ... a hung parliament was put at the centre of the campaign. We were out there campaigning for a hung Parliament - vote for us, we want to come third - and strange to say we ended up coming third. So we certainly won't be doing that.

If as the result of the next general election there is no one party with an outright majority, it's far too early to start making decisions but my inclination is certainly moving in the direction of saying that we would continue to - it depends obviously what happens - but we would be inclined, I would be inclined, to say the largest party would carry on as a minority government and we would continue to sit independently in opposition. I don't think you can rush headlong into a coalition.

Peter O'Sullivan: Do you think you were vociferous enough in your opposition to war?

CK: I think my opponents in the House of Commons do, judging by the response. A lot of politics is about personal style. You may think that style is not vociferous or loud enough, but that's a matter of personal taste. But in terms of what we were actually saying we were always very careful - never once did I call into question the integrity of Tony Blair. What I kept questioning was the quality of the intelligence and I still do question that. I don't think it's a matter of the decibel level I think it is a matter of directness, getting to the heart of the issue that needs to be addressed.

You were not getting that level of inquiry from the so-called official loyal opposition. They were saying "me too" under IDS in the Commons. I think we were certainly vociferous enough, but I think you can be vociferous without being vicious.

John Carabine: Will you consider introducing a "bring our troops home from Iraq policy" in the next manifesto?

CK: We always argued that having executed the war you have got to stay around for the peace. I think we are in there for the long haul while the position is stabilised.

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