Alan Watkins: They laughed at Ming because they lead drab lives... and because they're worried

The government benches see Iraq disappearing over the hills
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The Independent Online

The news that, after Mr Simon Hughes's announcement on Thursday that he would contest the Liberal Democrat leadership, the bookmakers had installed him as favourite fortified me in my conviction that only in politics and in rugby football was it possible to make money out of betting. This is because the bookies do not take either activity seriously and certainly do not know much about them. As Mr Ron Pollard of Ladbrokes once put it to me, it was all "a bit of fun" or - perhaps more to the point - "good publicity for us".

Though I tend to believe what my colleagues write, I remain unconvinced that all the bookmakers immediately made Mr Hughes favourite. That would have been eccentric even by their own capricious standards. It may be, of course, that they were influenced Sir Menzies Campbell's performance at Prime Minister's Questions on the previous day. Certainly my colleagues were influenced by it. One of them, indeed, went so far as to write (I estimated) 1,100 words on the one small episode, which at my most hard-up I would never have attempted.

What happened was that Sir Menzies asked an entirely sensible question about the absence of a permanent headteacher in one out of five schools. How like, how very like, the home life of our own dear Liberal Democrats! Goodness, how they all laughed! These boys and girls will laugh at most things because they lead such drab lives and can do with whatever amusement they can find to see them through the day. In particular, they will laugh at anything to do with the Liberal Democrats, because they present a threat to the position of the two main parties.

This threat fluctuates in the seriousness with which it is taken. At present the Conservatives feel that, with the election of Mr David Cameron, they are at an advantage. Manifestly the Liberal Democrats feel under a disadvantage. Otherwise they would not have got rid of Mr Charles Kennedy when and in the way they did. The government benches are perhaps less pleased with themselves: but they see Iraq disappearing over the hill and becoming merged in the general nightmare of Middle Eastern politics.

Mr Kennedy must feel inclined to quote, in relation to his colleagues, the words of the Austrian Chancellor in 1849: "We shall astonish them with our ingratitude." True, he was naughty to threaten originally that he would appeal directly to the party members. This would have meant that certainly Sir Menzies and probably Mr Hughes as well would have declined to stand against him. He would have been given a virtually clear run.

About the supposed concealment of what everyone, in these debased times, has agreed to call his "problem", I am not nearly so sure; not sure at all, in fact. For one thing, as I wrote last week, Mr Kennedy never seemed to me to drink an inordinate amount.

For another thing, any concealing that was being done was carried out not so much by Mr Kennedy himself as by his friends and allies, whose resort to the law of libel would have aroused the professional admiration of the late Captain Robert Maxwell. Indeed, I am still waiting to know what has happened to the money which The Times expended in legal fees before issuing a somewhat broken-backed apology for a story by one of its columnists about Mr Kennedy's alcoholic excesses.

Drinking is now discussed with a mixture of censoriousness and jocosity. One never knows which characteristic is dominant in any given conversation. Whisky tends to lead to bad temper and even violence, certainly to hurtful remarks. Quite why this is so is mysterious - there does not seem to be any generally agreed scientific explanation - but so it undoubtedly is. If I were Mr Kennedy, I should keep off the stuff and try something else.

Whatever his future drinking plans may be, he can be proud of what he has achieved. In the two elections he has fought as leader, he has won 52 and 62 seats. This is three up on David Lloyd George's 59 in 1929. We have to go back to H H Asquith's 159 in 1923 for a better performance. Why people go on about Lloyd George is odd, but there it is.

Nor is this just a matter of figures. Mr Kennedy had some large decisions to take and took the right ones. In 1999, when he succeeded Paddy Ashdown, his party was still dominated by the theory of the opening to the left. This was propounded by Jo Grimond in the early 1960s, when we had a Conservative government. It envisaged a future when a reformed Labour Party, having cast off its left wing, would form a new radical party with the Liberals which would find itself happily in government more or less permanently.

This has been the prevailing Liberal theory ever since, though it has had its periods of fashionable prosperity: under David Steel and his Lib-Lab pact and, later, under Paddy Ashdown. Indeed, Tony trifled with Paddy's affections. There was nothing he would like better, he said, than to make an honest woman of her by giving her a place at the cabinet table. Alas, his wife wouldn't let him.

When Mr Kennedy took over, the unanimous advice of columnists, certainly those of a left-inclined disposition, was to continue with the charade of intimate little lunches and a discreet bit of hand-holding under the table. I told Mr Kennedy that no good would come of it - that this way only misery would lie - and that he would be much better off to strike out on his own.

It was not that Mr Tony Blair had outflanked the Liberal Democrats, which was the conventional formulation at the time. It was, rather, that Mr Kennedy could offer something which was not available from Mr Blair. Indeed, Mr Blair was selling goods which no Liberal Democrat would touch even with rubber gloves. If Mr Kennedy had taken the advice on general offer in 1999, he would have been tied into the Iraq war crime. It is possible that Lord Ashdown would have been in favour of the assault anyway: but, even with him gone off to Bosnia, Mr Kennedy would have been forced into a path he did not want to take.

It is one of the pathetic fallacies of our time that Tories thinking of voting Liberal Democrat want a candidate who will offer them policies they can perfectly well get from a Conservative. This was true of Iraq. It is equally true of other areas. Mr Kennedy saw this clearly. Mr Nick Clegg, who is not a candidate in the forthcoming contest, sees it too. I think Sir Menzies does as well. I hope so.

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