The no-shows of Chatshow Charlie: from rumour to denial to admission

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Indy Politics

He was once the golden boy of centre-ground politics. Charles Kennedy arrived in the Commons as Britain's youngest MP at the tender age of 23 in 1983, showing a political maturity beyond his years. His confident television performances earned him the nickname "Chatshow Charlie" and before he was 40, he was occupying the position once held by Gladstone and Lloyd George.

In this role he showed a shrewd judgement on the big questions. By renouncing a pact with Labour, opposing the Iraq war, opposing tuition fees, and calling for a softening of cannabis laws, he tapped into a rich vein of public support. Last year, he led the Liberal Democrats to their best election for more than 70 years.

But all the while he was nursing a dark secret, and yesterday he was forced to admit what many had long suspected - his alcoholism. Yesterday, it forced him to put his job up for grabs, in one of the most astonishing statements delivered by a British political leader in living memory.

He said that he had been fighting the problem "for the past 18 months" - but speculation about his fondness for Glenmorangie have been around in Westminster for longer than that.

During the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth in September 2001, Mr Kennedy was booked for a live interview with Andrew Neil, which was cancelled at short notice. When the programme offered to send a camera crew to Mr Kennedy's hotel room, his staff insisted that he was unavailable, without explaining why.

Those who suspected he had a problem then hoped it would be cured when, at the age of 42, he gave up the bachelor life and married his girlfriend, Sarah Gurling.

In Westminster, opinion was generally on Mr Kennedy's side when Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman brutally asked him whether his decision to marry was linked to his drinking. He told Mr Paxman: "I drink socially and moderately, as you well know." But Mr Paxman asked: "Do you drink privately? At home alone, do you finish off a bottle of Scotch?" Mr Kennedy replied: "No."

The interview caused enough shock to bring protests from Labour MPs, including the late Robin Cook, who was then leader of the Commons, forcing Mr Paxman to make an apology. But it was not long before the rumours were bubbling up again.

In summer 2003, Gordon Brown made a major and long awaited Commons announcement on a subject on which Charles Kennedy and his party had campaigned long and hard, when he ruled out a referendum on British membership of the euro for the foreseeable future. Other MPs could not fail to notice that, although the House was packed, Kennedy was not there. The explanation was that he had decided to watch the statement on television.

In March 2004, ITN interviewed the Liberal Democrat leader on his response to Tony Blair's statement on terrorism, but they decided not to broadcast the interview for "editorial reasons". There was no protest from his office about the decision.

Later the same month, Mr Kennedy was due to appear in the Commons for one of the biggest events of the parliamentary calendar, to make his party's response to Mr Brown's budget speech, and to tackle Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions. In the middle of the morning, he was suddenly unavailable. His Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, had to deliver the budget speech at very short notice, and the deputy leader, Menzies Campbell, had to take Prime Minister's Questions at even shorter notice. The official explanation was that he had a stomach bug. "I certainly do not have a drink problem," he said on television.

Last November, he was travelling to a party event in Newcastle when he decided to turn back and go home. This time, journalists were told that he was responding to a routine problem with his son, born during last year's general election.

Only this week, he was asked on the BBC Radio Four Today programme why he did not simply announce he had given up drinking. Mr Kennedy replied: "If there's a perception about any anxiety on that front, there needn't be. That is the case and that is how things will continue."

But it could not continue. One of the people who knew his secret was his former adviser, Daisy Sampson, his press secretary in the early days, who had moved on to a career in television, as Andrew Neil's co-presenter on The Politics Programme, and then, under her married name of Daisy MacAndrew, as political correspondent of ITN.

Yesterday, Mr Kennedy learnt Mrs MacAndrew was going to put out a report on the evening news that he had been treated for alcoholism. By coincidence, it was on the same day that news leaked out that 11 members of his shadow cabinet had signed a letter calling on him to resign. After a crisis meetings with his advisers, Mr Kennedy accepted that the secret that he had kept so badly, and about which he had lied repeatedly, would finally have to come out into the open.

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