Charles Kennedy: Pragmatic, shrewd, and tactically brilliant

Had he been leader in 2010 he would have stayed out of Cabinet and offered the confidence and supply support

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The Independent Online

Perhaps this short tribute to Charlie should be entitled “the Charles Kennedy I didn't know very well”. That is because I didn't, even in the short time I worked as a press man for Paddy Ashdown. I did not even know, though you caught the odd rumour, that his drinking habits were so ruinously excessive. I do recall, a few years later, when Charles become leader, a lunch when his hands were trembling quite noticeably, and I then drew the necessary conclusions. His girlfriend and wife Sarah, many of us hoped, would help change some of his ways.

What I did know was his brand of politics, which were pragmatic and shrewd. Strange for a centre party politician he was suspicious of the Lib Dems getting into any sort of arrangements with their two bigger rivals. So, when Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair were exploring closer links before and after the 1997 election, Charles certainly kept his distance.

He started his political career as a social democrat, and, for all his genuine liberalism, those instincts persisted to the end of his life. So he was wary of New Labour, well to the right of his politics, and especially Blair. By the time of the Iraq war Kennedy had long since canned the Blair-Ashdown “project” and begun to capitalise on Labour's misjudgements. It was tactically brilliant. A different Labour leader and a different Labour Party might have been more agreeable to Kennedy, but only with the right sort of deal, especially on PR.

By the same token Kennedy saw better than most what coalition with the Tories might do to his party, again without any certainty of electoral reform. Had Kennedy been leader in 2010 he would have stayed out of Cabinet and offered the confidence and supply support. That was speculated about so much in the election campaign. That would have maintained his freedom of manoeuvre and party identity. Who knows what might have happened, but the Lib Dems probably wouldn't have collapsed to 8 per cent and 8 seats. As leader he might even have held on to his seat.

Anyway he is gone now, though politically he died on the day he resigned his leadership. His politics weren't mine; he was too europhile for a start. He didn't strategise and he didn't philosophise (his one book on the subject had been ghost written). He was, though, a great tactician. He would have carried on campaigning to the left of Labour, but would not have governed to the right of Labour, the mistake Nick Clegg made (as identified by Blair).

It is usually thought a weakness, a party leader not having a strategy - the Kennedy approach - something that would push a party like the Lib Dems up a dead end. To which Charles might well say, ruefully, “well look at us now”.

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