Sean O'Grady: Kennedy should go, but not in this manner

True to form, the Lib Dems are going about it in completely the wrong way

Share

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they they're not out to get you," so the old joke goes. The normally well-adjusted, thoroughly sensible Charles Kennedy has never shown much sign of paranoia, but his parliamentary colleagues are certainly out to get him.

They tell him to "raise his game" in the full knowledge that he can't. They're spooked by the appearance of new kid David Cameron on the block, even younger than Charles Kennedy, who may, in time, come to use the line that he is a "fully-paid up member of the human race", which used to be Mr Kennedy's monopoly. Colleagues aren't happy about the impact Mr Kennedy's isn't making. They're briefing the press, big-time.

Well, Kennedy's critics are right. The last election was an opportunity that comes only once in a generation. It's often the case that the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have prospered when the Tories have collapsed, as in the 1970s and 1990s. Sometimes, though less often, they've done well when Labour was weak, as in 1983, say.

What was very special about 2005 was that both of the main parties were out of favour with the electors, if for radically different reasons. Tony Blair's record had turned to resentment and disappointment, especially on the war, but also on public services. The Tories were still divided and headed by a competent but unlovely leader.

There were, in other words, two loads of protest votes going begging, in Lotto terms a sort of political rollover, and the Lib Dems didn't capitalise on that nearly as successfully as they might have done. Mr Kennedy did not do badly - more seats, more votes, doing better than Paddy Ashdown. However there is a nagging sense that maybe, just maybe, 2005 could have been more of a Lib Dem breakthrough than just another step forward. Kennedy missed the open goal, and the votes went begging, heading off to the fringe parties, and the rest staying home.

Since the election, things have got worse. David Cameron is still a novelty, and the Tories are resting such extravagant hopes in him that one wonders how they might cope if he, too, turns out to be a dud. But for now he seems vigorous and assured, with a better sense of strategy than Charlie, and a party behind him that is desperate for success. The Tories know they need to win back not just seats lost to New Labour, but all those constituencies in the West Country and the home counties where the Lib Dems are now established.

The plausible Mr Cameron may well be able to win back moderate Tories who defected to the Lib Dems in the chaos and extremism of the post-Thatcher Tory party. Mr Cameron has even started talking about the environment, something Liberal Democrats may mock, but ought to take seriously. If I were a Lib Dem MP, I too would be getting worried about this Cameron guy.

So the Liberal Democrats need a new leader - but, true to form, they are going about it in completely the wrong way. This semi-public campaign being waged by some of Mr Kennedy's senior colleagues will leave the party with the worst of all worlds. They have certainly destabilised his leadership - witness Cameron's cruel jibe at Mr Kennedy at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday about the Lib Dem's new "decapitation strategy".

Yet the Lib Dem plotters have very little chance of actually unseating him. Constitutionally he cannot be easily challenged, but in any case who gets to lead the Liberal Democrats is not up to the Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet, the parliamentary party, activists or indeed we scribblers in the press. It is up to the ordinary party membership and they, I am fairly sure, want nothing more than for Mr Kennedy to be left alone to get on with the job and nothing less than Menzies Campbell running the shop.

I am in the happy position of not having voted for Mr Kennedy in the leadership election he won in 1999. In the preferential voting system predictably favoured by the Lib Dems, I placed him sixth out of the six candidates available. I'd do the same again. Were there an election to replace Mr Kennedy now, I hope there'd be fewer candidates and more choice. The party needs to decide what it wants to be before it decides who leads it.

Mr Kennedy's "chairman" style facilitates a useful ambiguity, but long-term it isn't a tenable approach. A leadership election could set the party on a clear course. So let's hear what kind of vision David Laws, or Nick Clegg or Ed Davey or any of the other young talents would like to offer. But getting rid of Kennedy would be very messy. I fear we won't be reading their leadership manifestos anytime soon.

s.o'grady@independent.co.uk

The writer was press secretary to Paddy Ashdown

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam