Charles Kennedy has been secretly campaigning for Mark Oaten in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest, opening him to the charge that he is seeking revenge on Sir Menzies Campbell, Simon Hughes and others who played a part in his downfall.
Leaked documents obtained by The Independent show that the former leader and his senior aides have been privately canvassing other Liberal Democrat MPs while publicly remaining neutral.
The papers tear the lid off the Liberal Democrat leadership campaign, which so far has been gentlemanly. Mr Kennedy is known to be bitter about the way he was "knifed in the back" but until now, it has appeared that he was prepared to watch from the sidelines.
"It's the first I've heard of it," said a member of one opposing campaign team. "I knew he was close to Mark but I didn't realise he had been canvassing."
Mr Kennedy's "gatekeeper", Anna Werrin, who was by his side when he dramatically resigned on 7 January over his drink problems, has been helping garner support for Mr Oaten. At the same time she was acting for the four leadership candidates over arrangements for the party's spring conference in Harrogate where the winner will make his first speech as leader. Three days after Mr Kennedy resigned, she sent an e-mail to Mr Oaten saying the former leader was contacting the Liberal Democrat MP Paul Keetch. She told Mr Oaten: "Charles has paged Paul Keetch and will come back to me once he's spoken to him."
Last night Ms Werrin denied that she and Mr Kennedy were canvassing support for Mr Oaten: "I was used as an intermediary. I was passing on messages when Charles was not taking calls."
She said Mr Kennedy had been helping Mr Oaten to secure enough nominations to stand, adding: "The last time I spoke to Charles, he would help anybody who wanted to stand. In all honesty the last time I spoke to Charles, he had not decided how to vote. He is keen to be neutral. He has said he will help anyone who needs help."
The leaked papers also reveal that Mr Oaten and his campaign manager, Lembit Opik, had dinner at The Ivy restaurant in London on Monday night with a potential donor.
E-mails to Mr Oaten have included a highly embarrassing reference to Michael Brown, a multimillionaire financier living in the US, who donated £2.4m to the party, but protested on BBC radio at the way Mr Kennedy was forced out. He said he was "99.9 per cent" sure he would not give any more money to the party.
One key Oaten supporter, Alex Proud, asked Mr Oaten whether he wanted an approach for money to Mr Brown, but went on to describe his remarks on radio as childish. "Listening to Michael Brown this morning ... do you want me to speak to him off the record or broker a meeting with you to mend bridges. To me it sounded like a child who simply wants attention and caring for..."
The e-mail trail
From: Alex Proud (Oaten supporter)
Sent: 10 January 2006 19:11
To: OATEN, Mark
Mark it occurred to me...
Listening to Michael Brown this morning that I have met him a good few times now as Anna (Werrin) liked me to try and keep an eye on him to keep him on side...
Do you want me to speak to him off the record or broker a meeting with you to mend bridges, to me it sounded like a child show simply wants attention and caring for, things I am more than happy to do on your behalf if you wish... Totally understand if you have someone on this already or don't want his money or his money is not important right now or whatever, I just thought I would mention as I assume you need to finance campaign?
Don't bother replying to this if not of interest or you're too busy and good luck, hope it has been a good day.
5 Buckingham St
From: WERRIN, Anna (aide to Kennedy)
Sent: 10 January 2006 12:45
To: OATEN, Mark
Charles has paged Paul Keetch and will come back to me once he's spoken to him.
I assume he told you last night, but David Heath doesn't want to stay neutral and not declare for anyone; Hannock is on board and is going to speak to Bob Russell and try to persuade him to sign up (and was quite hopeful about his chances of doing so).