The lies, the drink and the cover-up: How the plotters ganged up to bring their leader down

Charles Kennedy wanted to beat his demons in private, but even close allies gave up hope of that. Marie Woolf and Francis Elliott reveal the inside story of how he was forced to face up to the truth
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Indy Politics

When Charles Kennedy closed the door to his London town house on Friday night he warned the waiting press pack that he would be spending "a quiet family weekend".

Little could have been further from the truth. His wife, Sarah, and young son, Donald, may have been in the same house but Mr Kennedy himself was masterminding his last-ditch attempt for survival. The Liberal Democrat leader was in almost constant phone contact with three of his closest advisers, Jackie Rowley, his overworked press secretary, Anna Werrin, the maternal figure who serves as his gatekeeper, and Lord Newby, who kept in touch from Hungary where he was on holiday.

Initially they shared his optimism that his candid admission about drinking would, with grassroots support, help him to prevail over his MP critics.

And as he picked up yesterday's copy of The Independent he must have been gratified to see his defiant message carried so prominently. As the morning wore on, it became clear that he had lost the support of the one constituency he thought could save him: ordinary party members. Aides broke the news that constituency parties wanted him to step aside.

It was a message that chimed with his own conversations with key party figures. The admission of a drink problem, despite years of denials, had rocked confidence in the Lib Dem leader.

Not only did he face the prospect of a mass resignation of his front bench but also the threat that further details of his drink-related failures as a leader would be exposed should he stand again for the leadership.

The story of how an apparently successful leader was brought to the brink by some of his closest colleagues and friends shares many of the features of a tragic family argument. And as with so many ugly personal disputes, at its heart lies a dark secret surrounded by lies, half-truths and evasions.

Now that Mr Kennedy himself has admitted having a serious drink problem, former friends and colleagues are free to let daylight in on a story that will be all too familiar to many families blighted by alcoholism.

The situation had become so serious that in the past few days MPs had been compiling a "charge sheet" detailing Mr Kennedy's failures, including drink-related incidents. One rebel leader said: "If Mr Kennedy went ahead and stood these stories would certainly come out at the hustings. It would be suicide."

An MP at the age of 23, by his thirties it was clear that drinking played a major part in Mr Kennedy's life. And there were plenty of early indications.

His romance with the literary agent Georgina Capel during the late 1990s is said to have come to an abrupt end after she woke in the flat they sharedto discover her soon-to-be-ex urinating over the only manuscript copy of Brian Keenan's An Evil Cradling.

Embarrassing though such examples of excess were, however, they were not well known enough to prevent him from securing the leadership in August 1999. "He used to swig mouthwash in cars on the way to visits," said one party figure who accompanied him during the campaign.

Within two years of becoming leader the problem was so well known among colleagues that it was the subject of complaints to his office by fellow MPs. One MP recalls having to "bundle" Mr Kennedy off the benches and out of the Commons chamber during one debate because it was clear he had been drinking.

Another says there were occasions when he appeared so late, with only minutes to spare before the Prime Minister stood up, there were extreme nerves among his MPs about whether he would appear at all.

Another MP said it was sometimes clear from those sitting near him that he had been drinking. "He looked like he's had the DTs at PMQs and he stunk of alcohol," says yet another MP.

Not all his drinking companions were discreet. Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, recalls in his diaries getting "horrendously drunk" with Mr Kennedy at Wimbledon before he became leader.

There were too many other heavy sessions with journalists for the subject to remain off-limits for ever. In a brutal interview with the Lib Dem leader in July 2002, Jeremy Paxman asked him whether he drank privately "by yourself, bottle of whisky, late at night". Mr Paxman was forced to apologise but the genie was out of the bottle. His marriage to Sarah encouraged his close colleagues to believe that he would cut back his consumption.

Such hopes were to prove naive and Mr Morgan's diary entry for 18 September 2002 shows how inept were the MP's efforts to mask the problem. "Rosie Boycott threw a small dinner party tonight for Charles Kennedy, and I sat next to him. He insisted on drinking half glasses of wine, as if making some point about all the boozing rumours. By the 10th half glass I had to laugh."

By now the problem had implicated many of his most senior aides in a conspiracy of silence and cover-up. Increasingly his lieutenants were forced to conceal the truth from colleagues - and it is noticeable that among the most outspoken critics this weekend were Mr Kennedy's former parliamentary aides, Norman Lamb and Andrew George.

Two key members of the "bunker", as Mr Kennedy's suite of offices in the Commons came to be known, did most to hold the line. Ms Rowley and Ms Werrin both insisted that nothing was wrong, even as it became increasingly clear that it was.

Like most drink problems, Mr Kennedy's is episodic and there were moments of great political success and periods of relative sobriety. His political obituary will record that he provided visionary leadership during the war in Iraq, resisting extreme pressure from the Government to support the American-led invasion. He also defied members of his own party to refuse to take part in the Butler inquiry because he believed - correctly as many think - that its terms of reference were too narrow.

Even on the eve of the war in Iraq there was renewed evidence of heavy drinking. A former aide recalls arriving for work each morning in the "bunker" to be greeted by the sight of three or four empty wine bottles in its kitchenette together with just three used glasses. "It was like a mini-party every night," the aide said.

At last the evidence that his drinking was affecting how he could do his job could be concealed no longer. In June 2003, Gordon Brown announced that Britain would not join the euro - one of the most important moments of the Parliament. Onlookers stared in disbelief as the space where Mr Kennedy was supposed to sit was kept empty.

Swiftly a statement was issued explaining Mr Kennedy had decided to watch the statement from his room. It was then that the rumours went into overdrive that the reason for his "no show" was because he was not in "a fit state".

The previous night a wealthy party donor had apparently thrown a party to celebrate Mr Kennedy's 20 years as an MP. Suddenly his ability to do the job was in question. They were questions that, for the most part, were asked in private, however, and it was Sue Lawley who next sought to confront Mr Kennedy on Desert Island Discs three months later.

He denied drinking too much, blaming a media "caricature" of a "red-headed Highlander from the north of Scotland". Every now and then for the remainder of 2003 and into the next year stories of Mr Kennedy's alleged drinking surfaced - only to be authoritatively dismissed.

When ITN pulled the plug on an interview with the leader "for editorial reasons" the rumours stepped up. Mr Kennedy's sweaty performance at the party's spring conference did little to restore confidence.

But it took a second parliamentary no-show - this time for the 2004 Budget - to blow the lid on the conspiracy of silence. Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader, was forced to act. It was a delegation led by the deputy leader - not a "moment of clarity" - that led Mr Kennedy to seek medical help.

But still his aides denied there was a problem to the media. Indeed The Times was forced to make an apology for suggesting that he had been unfit through alcohol to appear at the Budget.

For a while the line held and a seemingly successful general election helped to stem the tide. A disastrous manifesto launch in which Mr Kennedy failed to provide information on a basic policy was blamed on the arrival of his son, Donald.

But five months later the election of David Cameron as the new Tory leader and an apparent return to the bottle brought a simmering issue dramatically to the boil.

The crisis started with a meeting of Mr Kennedy's frontbench on 15 November in which he was notably below par. Further embarrassment followed the same day when Mr Kennedy travelled to the London School of Economics to address a student political meeting. The 60-strong audience were first kept waiting and when, at last, the Lib Dem leader did arrive, they were treated to a stumbling performance. A number of MPs who attended were left cringing as Mr Kennedy was rushed away at the end of his speech, refusing to take questions citing an "urgent meeting".

Two days later came yet more evidence when Mr Kennedy failed to show up in Newcastle for a series of scheduled meetings. Businessmen invited to a lunch in his honour were left eating alone, while a press call to launch the city's new tram service was cancelled when its star attraction was a no-show. Officially the explanation given was that his son had taken ill. But few of his closest colleagues believed it was Donald who was ill, but rather his father.

MPs decided late last year that they could wait no longer for evidence that he had kicked the habit. Soon the pits and troughs became too predictable, and the political points being scored by Mr Kennedy became more and more infrequent.

"The briefing has got to stop," Mr Kennedy barked at his most senior colleagues. "I don't want this to go on and on." It was 13 December and Mr Kennedy, tipped off about an imminent coup, was determined to nip it in the bud. Anyone with concerns about his drinking should come and see him personally, he said, attempting to introduce the next item on the agenda.

"Wait!" a female voice broke in. Sandra Gidley, the party's family spokesman, continued: "I don't think this issue is resolved. I am continually being asked to defend you. Only the other night at a constituency dinner I was asked about you and alcohol. I think everyone with concerns about this should talk to the chief whip."

It was a devastating intervention that set in train the slow haemorrhage that led finally to this weekend's dramatic events.

As Ms Gidley put down her hand, Sir Menzies spoke out, asking for party staff attending the shadow cabinet meeting to leave the room, because the matter to be discussed would be so sensitive. However, Mr Kennedy refused the request and said the Lib Dem aides should stay. Sir Menzies, a veteran of the law courts as well as Parliament, told the party leader in no uncertain terms that confidence in his leadership was a matter of serious concern and must be resolved.

The decision of the respected deputy leader to challenge Mr Kennedy opened the floodgates for complaints about his performance. MPs who owed their political careers to Mr Kennedy indicated frankly that the situation was becoming so serious they could no longer keep quiet. They included Ed Davey and Sarah Teather, who regarded him as a personal friend.

Of his frontbench team only Lembit Opik, the Northern Ireland spokesman, and Mark Oaten, the home affairs spokesman, who has privately made no secret of his ambitions to lead the party, spoke out in defence of Mr Kennedy.

Mr Davey, an ultra loyal figure, complained in front of amazed party staff that he had been forced to lie when asked about whether the Lib Dem leader had a drinking problem. His admission reflected what MPs had been complaining about for months: that they had been asked to compromise their integrity to cover up their leader's alcohol problem.

MP after MP paraded into his office and begged him to stand down to deal with his drink problem. A letter with 11 signatories was written, and Mr Kennedy was told by Vince Cable, his Treasury spokesman, that it existed. "It was meant as an easy way out for him. We wanted him to reflect over Christmas and to go without being forced to go out," said one MP.

But Mr Kennedy, who after reflection and advice to draw strength from his support among Lib Dem members did not take their advice. MPs were bemused to receive a new year pager message from the Chief Whip, Andrew Stunell, which read: "Happy and successful 2006 with complete discretion by all please. Chief Whip."

At last Mr Kennedy's hand was forced when Daisy McAndrew, his former press secretary, used her Lib Dem contacts to compile a story for ITN, detailing his alcoholism which they planned to run on the early evening news. At 4pm, Deborah Turness, the editor of ITN news, rang Mr Kennedy's office and informed him of their intention to run the story. The news, which had already leaked to Mr Kennedy's office, bounced the leader into bringing forward his last-ditch attempt to keep his job - an appeal to party members over the heads of MPs and a confession of his alcoholism.

Having delivered his bombshell he retired back behind the doors of his three-storey town house, appearing again only to restate his determination to continue on Friday evening. By the time he next emerged it was to formally accept his career in frontline politics was over.