Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Fast show of politics leaves Kennedy looking like a leader from another era
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The Independent Online

Politics is getting faster. A long Tory leadership contest was settled in 15 minutes when the party faithful fell in love with David Cameron as he spoke at their Blackpool conference.

Tony Blair, having promised to serve a "full term" but not to fight another election, finds his time rapidly running out only seven months after winning a third time. When ministers are in trouble, like David Blunkett, they cannot survive the media microscope and are forced out in days.

A desire in all parties for hyperactivity and instant success was a powerful factor in the leadership crisis that engulfed Charles Kennedy this week. The Liberal Democrat leader is only 46 but temperamentally he is a politician from another era. He likes to pace himself, saying that elections are a four-year marathon, not a sprint. His instinct is to "mull things over" rather than satisfy the voracious appetite of 24-hour media.

It might have been enough in the old days, but the Liberal Democrats have changed. They have become impatient. Their high-calibre frontbenchers are hungry for a taste of power. They don't want to mull. They want action and momentum, not dither and drift. They think the long-distance runner is still warming up at the starting line.

To outsiders, it might have looked as though the leadership crisis blew up out of nowhere, or was a panic reaction to the election of Mr Cameron. The Tory leader has certainly jangled Liberal Democrat nerves. But the crisis has been brewing since the party missed a unique opportunity at the May election to exploit the unpopularity of Labour and the Tories.

Mr Kennedy suspects the pot was stirred by people who can see their own leadership prospects fading - by which he means Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader, and Simon Hughes, the president. But they are not the only ones with ambition and I suspect others were stirring it. Centre-right modernisers, including Mark Oaten, Vince Cable, David Laws and Ed Davey, have been promoted by Mr Kennedy but have become increasingly frustrated by his performance. "The plotting is coming from his friends, not his enemies," said one insider.

Critics cite his woeful handling of a controversy over a £2.4m donation to the party by a Swiss-based financier. They complain that he has surrounded himself with chums whose instinct is to "protect Charles" rather than tell him painful truths. In a series of one-to-one meetings with MPs this week to allow them to air grievances, Mr Kennedy seemed to accept the need to widen his inner circle.

He has launched a policy review but, his opponents say, doesn't seem to know what he wants to come out of it. There was a similar lack of direction at a messy annual conference in Blackpool in September.

To survive, he may have to abandon his natural instinct to be a conciliatory, chairman-like figure and lead from the front. The declarations of support from his senior MPs have been decidedly lukewarm. Some are privately preparing for a leadership contest at the same time as they profess their loyalty to Mr Kennedy.

He is now in mea-culpa mode, saying the "catharsis" of the past week will be good for him. But he is undoubtedly on probation, a dangerous and debilitating state for a party leader. A minor offence would probably spell the end.

The hurdles for Mr Kennedy are now very high - perhaps too high. "He has got to be reborn and he knows it," one of his MPs told me yesterday.

Some advisers say he needs a dramatic display of authority. They want him to climb off the fence that divides his party into two ideological camps. The Liberal Democrats are two parties underneath - no great surprise, perhaps, since they were formed by a merger of the Liberal and the Social Democratic parties in 1988. The centre-right group, or new social democrats, favour market-based reforms to public services and want to bury the party's high-tax image. They believe the party's key battle at the next election will be against the Tories, rightly fearing that Gordon Brown will woo back disenchanted Labour voters who switched to the Liberal Democrats in May. Mr Kennedy probably knows this in his heart of hearts and has allowed the centre-right group to push their agenda - notably on tax.

But - so far - he has been reluctant to upset the other half of his party, the old Liberals who want a stronger commitment to social justice (even if that means raising taxes). They insist the party has a future in taking on Labour as well as the Tories, pointing out that Labour holds 104 of the 187 seats in which the Liberal Democrats came second in May. This group has been the most supportive of Mr Kennedy in recent days. Some modernisers fear he might be driven into the arms of the traditionalists if there is further turbulence, pushing the party into an electoral cul-de-sac.

Characteristically, Mr Kennedy will mull things over at Christmas. But hurdles will then come thick and fast - he will need markedly to raise his game in the first weeks of the new year, have a good spring conference in March and ensure his party does well at local authority elections in May.

Allies insist Mr Kennedy can yet emerge strengthened from his nightmare week. I am not so sure. They say he is good at rising to the occasion. He certainly needs to - and fast. When he mulls things over, he must decide it is time to stop mulling and start doing.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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