Sir Menzies 'covered up' Kennedy's drinking problem

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Indy Politics

Allies of Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, have tried to limit the fall-out over claims that he helped to cover up Charles Kennedy's alcoholism for six years.

A new book alleges that Sir Menzies and four members of Mr Kennedy's inner circle hid his illness from the public and most of the party through two general elections and that he had a serious drink problem when he became the party's leader in 1999.

Extracts from Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw, published in The Times today claim that Sir Menzies, Mr Kennedy's deputy, told him he "must quit for the sake of his family" when he held face-to-face meetings with his senior frontbenchers last December. But the book suggests Sir Menzies was not directly involved in the plot to remove Mr Kennedy by more junior frontbenchers. It says the process began last November when Julia Goldsworthy, a 27-year-old newly elected MP, believed Mr Kennedy was drunk when she attended a speech he gave at the London School of Economics. She passed on her concerns to the then chief whip Andrew Stunell.

The book threatens to reopen the wounds over the rebellion by Liberal Democrat MPs which forced Mr Kennedy to quit in January. It comes at a sensitive time, with Mr Kennedy due to re-emerge into the public spotlight when he addresses the party's autumn conference in Brighton in three weeks. Friends of Mr Kennedy believe the book may increase a wave of support for him among grassroots party members who remain angry that they had no say on whether he should carry on as leader.

Some insiders fear Mr Kennedy may receive a warmer reception at the conference than Sir Menzies, who hopes to silence muttering about his performance at his first conference as leader. Supporters of Sir Menzies dismissed suggestions that the alleged cover-up called his judgement into question.

A party spokesman said senior Liberal Democrats had acted "quite properly and loyally" by trying to protect Mr Kennedy's right to privacy as he tried to cope with his problem. "A point came early this year when a large number of Liberal Democrat MPs concluded that it was neither in Charles's nor the party's interest for him to continue as leader," he added.

The book by Greg Hurst, political correspondent of The Times, says: " Charles Kennedy struggled with a severe alcohol problem throughout his period as leader. He did not drink excessively every day, colleagues said, but every so often would go on a spree of very heavy drinking.

"He drank gin and tonic, or wine. On the occasions when Kennedy drank to excess his condition might simply manifest itself with a pungent smell of alcohol around him the next day. At its most acute, his drinking would, from time to time, leave him obviously unfit to perform in public."

In 2003, Mr Kennedy and his inner circle agreed that he should call a press conference to "set the record" about the rumours about his drinking. But after sleeping on it, he changed his mind and the public confession was dropped.

He admitted his problem when confronted by a wider group of senior party figures in 2004 soon after he was too ill to take part in the Commons debate on the Budget. A young aide was dispatched to his south London home after he failed to arrive at Westminster or answer phone calls.

According to the book, Lord Rennard, the party's chief executive, asked Mr Kennedy: "You're an alcoholic, aren't you?"

After a pause, the party leader replied: "Yes."

Mr Taylor told him: "You must never drink again.

"The next time you pick up a drink, you give up being leader."

The five who knew

Sir Menzies Campbell

Charles Kennedy's deputy, he agreed to take over as acting leader 14 months before last year's general election if Mr Kennedy's problem forced him to quit. Allies say the book makes him look more like "Ming the Merciful" than "Ming the Merciless".

Anna Werrin

Mr Kennedy's gatekeeper and secretary, she worked for him for 23 years. Has co-operated with the book, and is widely quoted in it. She told the author Greg Hurst: "He drank in private, by and large, and drank more than he thought."

Jackie Rowley

As Mr Kennedy's ultra-loyal press secretary, she had to deny to the media the constant rumours that he had a drink problem - even when he cancelled engagements. Now working for the General Medical Council. Opposed the idea of co-operating with the book.

Lord Razzall

Dubbed "Lord Razzall of Dazzle" for his love of good living, the fund-raiser became one of Mr Kennedy's closest advisers. Has now stood down from his role as chairman of the party's campaigns and communications committee.

Lord Newby

A former leading light in the Social Democratic Party, the peer became chief of staff to Mr Kennedy and was a key back-room fixer. Backed the plan for the Liberal Democrat leader to admit his problem publicly in 2003, which Mr Kennedy aborted at the last minute.