Andrew Grice: The week in politics

A party that has outgrown its laid-back leader
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Was it gallows humour? No. His aides were compiling a file of hundreds of printed out e-mails from party activists and members of the public praising his remarkable statement admitting his alcoholism and urging him to stay on.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world was getting a different picture. The television in the office was tuned to BBC News 24, which was leading its coverage with "the Lib Dems in turmoil" and reporting how two frontbenchers had threatened to quit their posts unless Mr Kennedy left his.

It became clear during the day that Mr Kennedy's "back me or sack me" plea was not working. A majority of his 62 MPs probably want him out - more in sorrow than anger - because they feel his continuing presence will damage the party. They are not prepared to see that happen and will do do whatever it takes to dump their leader.

Although he looked resilient, it is difficult to see how Mr Kennedy can survive the loss of support by 11 of his 23-strong shadow cabinet whose names are now public - including serious figures such as Vince Cable, David Laws and Ed Davey. Allies of Mr Kennedy insist there is plenty of new blood on the back benches ready for promotion to the frontbench team. The problem is that most of the shadow cabinet wants Mr Kennedy's blood.

One senior MP told me: "This is not about drink. After all, the country has been governed by alcoholics. It goes much wider than that. It is about his performance since the election last May." His performance - whatever the reasons for it - might have been good enough for the old Liberal Democrats. But the party has, to its credit, grown up - partly thanks to Mr Kennedy's success in boosting its number of MPs to its highest tally since 1923. But he has not matched that with the year-round activity and professional party machine needed for today's 24/7 political world.

His critics have been saying recently that the Liberal Democrat leader has too many "bad days" and not enough "good days". For some, that was a euphemism for his alcoholism. But for others, it was a more fundamental criticism of his laid-back style.

It is not enough for a leader to have a period of activity followed by a lull until the next burst. David Cameron's effective new-year media blitz highlights the contrast with the Liberal Democrats under Mr Kennedy's management. Tony Blair knows this; he will have a high profile in the next few days. Paddy Ashdown, Mr Kennedy's predecessor, got it too. He sometimes led so much from the front he left his troops too far behind. But he certainly provided strong leadership.

The other serious criticism, made to his face by several MPs, is that Mr Kennedy has a "bunker mentality" and has surrounded himself with chums who will not tell him painful home truths. "There has been too much mollycoddling of Charles," said one of the critics. Their chief target is Lord Razzall, the party's campaigns chief.

It would be interesting to know what his inner circle is advising Mr Kennedy this weekend. Their natural instinct will be to tell him he can still tough it out. Yet, according to several MPs, his team's duty now is to act as candid friends and tell him to fall on his sword when the Commons returns on Monday. That may yet happen.

Another source of deep frustration is that Mr Kennedy will not come off the fence that divides the party's two factions --the economic liberals such as Mark Oaten, Mr Cable, Mr Laws and Mr Davey, who want a shift to the right to combat the Tories, and the social liberals, led by Simon Hughes, who want to outflank Labour on social justice and argue it would be wrong to turn right when Mr Cameron has finally dragged the Tories back on to the centre ground.

These divisions could be Mr Kennedy's best card in a poor hand. He has no intention of jumping off his fence. He is convinced he is the only man who can unite the two factions by leading from the centre. His message to both groups is that they might end up with a leader from the rival camp if they take up his offer of a leadership contest. "The only thing that could re-unite us is our opposition to Simon Hughes," said one MP.

This is as good as it gets for Mr Kennedy but it may not be good enough to save him. Even if nobody comes forward to challenge him, it is difficult to see how he can lead a party whose MPs do not want to be led by him. Survival now may only postpone the inevitable. "It would be a death by a thousand cuts," said one senior party figure. "That would the worst of all worlds for the party. We are not going to allow that to happen."

The right parallel is not with John Major, whose "back me or sack me" plea in 1995 bought him two years without a leadership challenge, but with Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and Iain Duncan Smith in 2003. The fine print of party rulebooks does not matter. Once a leader loses the confidence of his parliamentary troops, there is only one outcome.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

Comments