Sean O'Grady: Bring back Charlie Kennedy

The Lib Dem bandwagon looks to have come juddering to a halt
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The Independent Online

Bring back Chatshow Charlie. I never thought I'd miss him, but I do. I think an awful lot of other Liberal Democrat supporters regret his departure from the leadership. Or, more accurately, they quietly rue the way that Mr Kennedy's parliamentary "colleagues" (such a nice term for such nasty individuals) forced him out of his job last January.

It was a ruthless coup, and it hasn't done much good. A book dealing with "revelations" about Kennedy's boozing and about the palace coup that got rid of him is promised for publication during the party's conference in Brighton next month. Mr Kennedy will be putting himself about, the bonnie prince Charlie come back from across the water. The conference should be an entertaining shambles.

But wasn't it inevitable that the alcoholic Kennedy had to go? No. He might have been given more chances to get help. He might have retired for a time to recover and then return when well. He might have been allowed to carry on; many other leaders did before him. It might have been better that way. When it comes to political appeal, Kennedy still has the edge on his successor, Sir Menzies Campbell. A BBC Newsnight poll suggests that a majority of the electorate, 53 per cent, thought he would be the best Lib Dem leader, compared with 26 per cent for Sir Menzies. That is pretty astonishing. Even though he's been out of the headlines for months, Kennedy is still preferred. To recycle once again the old joke, it seems the British people, if they care at all, would rather have Charles Kennedy drunk than Sir Menzies Campbell sober. Dear, oh dear.

You can see why. Since Kennedy's demise the party has done little. We should allow Sir Menzies some credit for the party's victory in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election and its near miss in rock-solid Tory Bromley. It shows the party can still win on the ground when it concentrates its resources. Great. Yet the Bromley result in particular was just too tantalisingly suggestive. Surely with a more charismatic and appealing leader (like Kennedy) another couple of hundred votes could have been garnered, Bromley won and - the greater prize - David Cameron's leadership of his party broken?

The national picture is not, as Sir Menzies says, of "consolidation" but of stagnation. Lib Dem support had fallen to its lowest level since 2002. An ICM poll a couple of weeks ago showed the Lib Dems down to 17 per cent, with the Conservatives on 39 per cent and Labour 35 per cent. If that sort of swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories were to be replicated at the next general election, scores of seats would fall, and the party might find itself back with a few dozen MPs (and the loss of much fine talent). The local elections produced a net gain of one council seat. The Lib Dem bandwagon that started rolling in the early 1990s looks to have come juddering to a halt, and it's started to slip back down the hill.

The polls aren't the only things that have gone wrong. There's policy too. The tax review looks like a disaster. The party leadership wanted to get rid of the pledge to tax higher earners on the top slice of their income at 50p in the pound. Cynical you might say, or realistic, because the message came through in the 2005 general election that the Lib Dem/Tory floating voters don't like the idea much. So the party must be shot of it. Fair enough. Yet what we have got in its place is an even more toxic electoral poison. The various tax changes to replace the 50p rate taken together sound like a declaration of war on the middle classes. Extra taxes on second homes, cars, air travel and the withdrawal of higher rate tax relief on pension contributions, judged purely as an exercise in populism, couldn't be worse judged.

It's not all Sir Menzies' fault. He hasn't been great at Prime Minister's Questions, he's getting better at it. But the word I always hear when his face pops up on the telly is "old".

"Old" doesn't sell. I think it's unfair, and it might actually be wrong in the sense that people really don't know why they dislike Sir Menzies and they just say the first thing that comes into their head. Like they always said they wouldn't vote for Neil Kinnock because he was bald, whereas what they probably meant was that they weren't convinced that the policy reviews he undertook marked a genuine shift in Labour's orientation. But "bald" is a lot less of a mouthful. You see I doubt people would just say "old" or "bald" to the idea of John Reid being Labour leader, although some might confuse Campbell and Reid too readily.

There's something more to the weakness of Campbell's leadership than mere chronography. It's not that he's an old man but that he's an old man in a hurry, who spies a chance to get his well-tailored rump into a ministerial car after the next election. That's because there might be a hung parliament and he'll be able to do some sort of machine-deal with Gordon Brown.

Ming could be deputy prime minister. Lovely for Sir Ming and Lady Campbell, but it isn't an exciting enough cause for the voters. The great irony is that Sir Ming might deliver his party its worst result since 1992 and its first cabinet minister (himself) since 1945. Yet I just don't think he'll even get enough votes to manage that. Charles Kennedy was a weaker man personally but I believe had a stronger sense of political principle and vastly more pulling power. If he's off the sauce, he ought to come back.

The writer is a former press officer to Paddy Ashdown