Kennedy: Popular, principled, and flawed

After six years with him as leader the party is stronger than before, with more MPs than at any time since the 1920s. But it was still the correct time to go, writes John Rentoul
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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy was the right leader of the Liberal Democrats for his time. Paddy Ashdown's hyperactive mission to rescue the party had run its course. When Lord Ashdown took over 11 years before, the newly merged party was on a life-support machine. He hauled it back by sheer personal energy. By 1999, however, his strategy of hitching the party's wagon to Tony Blair's rising star offered only trouble in store.

Almost the first decision Mr Kennedy made, after sitting awkwardly on the platform at the launch of "Britain in Europe", the stillborn euro referendum campaign, was to end the policy of co-operation with the Labour Government. Mr Blair had failed to deliver on his promise of that other referendum, on electoral reform, so Mr Kennedy led his party away from the centre of power, just as the New Labour tide started to ebb. He had always been the leading internal sceptic of Paddy Ashdown's attempt to form a coalition with Labour - a position that caused a lasting rift between the two.

Curiously, however, Mr Kennedy's direction of travel remained unclear. Part of his party, and part of him, headed for the small-c conservative centre ground, its doubts about New Labour fanned assiduously by the Daily Mail. The other part of the party, and the other part of him, headed left to capitalise on disillusion with Mr Blair. In his resignation speech yesterday, Mr Kennedy dismissed the simple labelling of different strands of thought in his party as either redundant or misleading. But his political make-up has always contained multitudes.

He came into politics as a member of the new, mould-breaking SDP, entering parliament in 1983 at the same time as Tony Blair. Mr Kennedy must have seemed a more promising bet as a future prime minister than the fresh-faced member for Sedgefield, who at 30 was seven years his senior. Mr Kennedy had been president of the Glasgow University student union and a student debating champion, and was taken under the wing of Roy Jenkins, the SDP leader.

Yet he soon became a favourite of the old Liberal wing of the Alliance, which became the merged Liberal Democrat Party in 1988, and a strong civil libertarian streak has run through his leadership. He also retained some of the more conservative values of his "west coast of Scotland chauvinist" background, according to one (female) friend. He is progressive on women's policies, but his attitudes seemed to have been formed in an age long lost to metropolitan liberals. He was born in Fort William - which finally became part of his redrawn constituency at the last election. He was the son of a draughtsman with the Scottish hydro-electric board, although his father owned and still owns a small farm, which allowed him to claim an even more "authentic" heritage as the son of a crofter.

The more important fact of his precocious start in politics - he expected to return to Indiana to continue his studies as a Fulbright scholar when he was elected in a four-way marginal - was that he felt under pressure to live up to early expectations. To what extent that fuelled his drinking is a matter for speculation, but he certainly had a reputation as a brilliant extempore speaker that seems a distant memory now. Like many MPs picked out for great things but forced to wait, he seems to have preferred various displacement activities to single-minded preparation for high office.

While he was a potential leader during Paddy Ashdown's long period at the top, Mr Kennedy was not given enough to do by a man who did not get on with him. Hence his appearances on Have I Got News for You, Call My Bluff, Countdown and Through the Keyhole. But the flame of his ambition burned steadily throughout the apparent dallying with frivolous pursuits. At his equivalent of the Granita dinner at which Gordon Brown stood aside for Tony Blair, Mr Kennedy dined with Menzies Campbell at the 1997 Liberal Democrat conference. They agreed that if Paddy Ashdown went "early", Mr Kennedy would leave Mr Campbell with a clear run. If he went "late" , their roles would be reversed. But they never defined terms and when Paddy Ashdown went suddenly in the middle of the parliament, Mr Campbell was unprepared and Mr Kennedy had a campaign organisation already in place. In a faint echo of the long-running Blair-Brown tension, Sir Menzies is now stepping up to seize his long-postponed inheritance.

For the six years that he has had to wait, Mr Kennedy's collegiate style has held the party together. It has smoothed the contradictions of the strategy of being simultaneously to the left and right of New Labour. Right from the start, however, his MPs were alarmed and journalists puzzled by his occasionally evident heavy drinking. It is worth being clear about this, though, because of the assumption that Westminster journalists "all knew ". What was known was that Kennedy sometimes drank heavily and sometimes smelt of alcohol during the day. It was not generally known that he was an alcoholic, and any suggestion that he was, was met with fierce denials and threats of legal action. He often looked ill, as on the occasion when he sweated profusely during his speech to the party's spring conference in 2004, but, like many alcoholics, was able to function plausibly when drunk. He also seemed to have rebalanced his life when he married Sarah Gurling in July 2002, and again when she gave birth to a son, Donald, during last year's election campaign.

However, his positive claim to distinction as a party leader has been that he called the big decisions right. Even in his final hours, he clung proudly to this qualification for leadership, claiming in his Independent interview on Friday night that his parliamentary colleagues and party members gave him credit "when it comes to political judgement ... to taking the right decisions".

His greatest claim is that he was right on the most important decision of all in the past six years, on the Iraq war. It seems churlish to point out that it is difficult to see how any leader of a non-Conservative opposition party could have taken a different line. His leadership was often a story of good basic positions frustrated by lack of energetic follow-through. On Iraq, anti-war campaigners bemoaned his lack of passion. At dinner with Rosie Boycott, the former editor of this newspaper, Piers Morgan, former editor of the Mirror, told him: "You should be ripping into Blair over Iraq." He answered apologetically: "I have to tread carefully. I am not a natural chest-beater, I'm afraid." When a million people took to the streets of Britain to march against the war in February 2003, he was criticised for his quietness and there were doubts until the last minute about whether he would be there at all.

But it was inconsistency rather than timidity that should have been the criticism that counted. One specific example makes the general case. Mr Kennedy was astute enough not to lend his party's credibility to the Butler inquiry into the pre-war intelligence failure. It was a trap into which Michael Howard led the Tories, and out of which he then tried to scramble. But when the Butler report was published, with its half-concealed damning of Tony Blair for his handling of the case for war, Mr Kennedy's big parliamentary moment was a rambling embarrassment.

On other issues too, he offered constructive opposition to New Labour when the Conservatives did not. He made the case against student tuition fees and for a higher rate of income tax on earnings over £100,000 a year. Whatever one's view of these issues, he served the cause of democracy by testing government legislation - in the case of tuition fees to within five votes of its life. On yet more issues, as on the council tax, his position, and the party's, was incoherent.

His leadership was characterised by courage in defending potentially unpopular human rights. He was stubborn in holding to liberal policies on asylum seekers when New Labour sought to appease tabloid xenophobia. And some of his more effective parliamentary moments came when he held Mr Blair to the fire over the treatment of the Guantanamo Bay detainees, or the conditions endured by stateless detainees in Belmarsh.

The greatest achievement of his leadership, however, is that, under him, the party increased its share of the vote and its number of seats in 2001 and again in 2005. It now has more MPs than at any time since the Liberal Party in the 1920s. His party's long-deferred hope of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament looks tantalisingly closer than at any time since the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s. But it will be for someone else to translate Liberal Democrat values into government policy if and when that happens.

The life and legacy

From student to MP

1983: Takes break from his studies in US to stand for SDP in Ross, Cromarty & Skye, and at the age of 23 is elected. In the next few years he holds a series of frontbench briefs, including social security, Scotland and health. Begins to make impact with his 'pretty straight kinda guy' bonhomie.

Chatshow Charlie

2000: Quick wit, easy-going manner, and what appears to be genuine and refreshing honesty for one of his trade make him a frequent guest on television programmes. He reaches his peak as 'Chatshow Charlie' with a sparkling appearance on 'Have I Got News for You'.

Anti-war stance

2003: Alone of the leaders of Britain's major parties, Kennedy takes the decision, after much agonising, to oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq. He speaks at the anti-war rally in Hyde Park. He also refused to nominate a Liberal Democrat to serve on the Butler inquiry into pre-war intelligence.

New party leader

1999: Beats five other candidates, including Simon Hughes, to succeed Paddy Ashdown as Lib Dem leader. He considerably loosens the party's close links with Labour, but his laid-back style, in contract to his predecessor's perpetual, militaristic activity, earns him reputation as 'Inaction Man'.

Family man

2002: A year after leading the party to an impressive 18.8 per cent share of the vote at the 2001 general election (producing 52 MPs), he becomes engaged to his partner of four years, Sarah Gurling. They marry and, in 2005, have a son, Donald James.

Triumph before a fall

2005: A personal triumph in the general election as the party records its best performance since the 1920s. Aided by his anti-war stance, he leads the Lib Dems to 62 seats. Within months, however, the rumblings of discontent about his leadership and 'health' surface again.


"Do enough to get by without knocking your pan in "

Ian Kennedy Charles's father on his son's attitude to schoolwork

"Do you drink privately? At home alone do you finish off a bottle of Scotch? "

Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight, 2002

"We are both at a point in our lives where we are looking forward to the next stage and maybe it has been calmer "

Sarah Gurling, Kennedy's wife-to-be, Woman's Hour, 2002

"He is far more winsome than the baby seals of the Canadian ice floes, with their voracious appetites for cod. He is more endangered than the giant panda, whose laid-back style he so brilliantly emulates "

Boris Johnson, DECEMBER 2005

"He's amiable, but there is a quietness to him, too, you know "

Mary Kennedy Charles's mother, 1999

"The Kennedy charm may be exactly what is wanted by voters fed up with self-importance "

BBC profile, 2001

Robin Stummer