Charles Kennedy has issued a thinly veiled threat to his enemies at Westminster, hinting that malcontents could face the sack.
The embattled Liberal Democrat leader ruled out a full-scale reshuffle but warned plotters that there was "plenty of talent around these days" . He spoke out amid an atmosphere of recriminations at Westminster after a 24 hours in which Mr Kennedy's hold on leadership was stretched to near breaking point.
Asked whether he was contemplating a night of the long knives to oust his opponents, he warned: "I think in Scotland in terms of traditional highland wear we call it a skean-dhu [dagger]. It's always a good idea keeping a skean-dhu to hand just in case."
He added: "I have said very clearly to people if they have profound or insuperable difficulties and they feel they can't stay, then that's unfortunate. [We are] more than capable and willing to fill any vacancies that arise."
Allies indicated that Mr Kennedy would take stock of the situation over Christmas, but warned his detractors: "If they feel so strongly about Charles then they should quit."
But David Cameron, the new Conservative leader, will attempt to turn the knife today with a speech urging discontented Liberal Democrat supporters to switch to the Tories.
Mr Kennedy won declarations of support yesterday from a series of frontbenchers, but it was clear that his troubles were far from over. Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader, broke a 24-hour silence over the leadership, saying that Mr Kennedy had his "full support" while he was leader and pledging not to stand against him. But his belated statement issued a full day after Sir Menzies failed to give Mr Kennedy his backing stopped short of denying that he had urged Mr Kennedy to quit.
Simon Hughes, the party president and another potential successor to Mr Kennedy, offered lukewarm backing. Asked yesterday on BBC Radio 4's Today programme if he expected and wanted Mr Kennedy to lead the party into the next general election, he said: "That is my expectation." Asked if that was what he wanted, he said: "Yes, because I want Charles to build on the success he has had." He said: "Charles has indicated that he will listen. That's what leaders are there to do and he must take heed of that. And if he is happy ... to take heed of the concerns, then he will continue to have the confidence of the parliamentary party."
Mark Oaten's office said the home affairs spokesman had this week reiterated his full support to Mr Kennedy. Susan Kramer, the MP for Richmond Park, told the BBC that Mr Kennedy was an outstanding leader "on his good days". She said: "I'm not hiding the fact that there have been some poorer days." Alistair Carmichael, the Orkney and Shetland MP, backed Mr Kennedy but said the party lacked "drive and direction".
Mr Kennedy is also losing the support amongst the electorate, according to a YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph, which found 11 per cent want him to see him as Prime Minister, down 7 per cent since the election in May.Reuse content