Charles Kennedy's marriage plans have made more waves than his political separation from Tony Blair. The announcement of his engagement earnt him a rare appearance on the front pages, yet it is his distancing from the Government that could dramatically change the political landscape, making an impact on the prospects for all three main political parties.
The moves away from the intimate relationship between Labour and the Liberal Democrats began some time ago and reached a climax when Mr Kennedy announced that he and his colleagues would no longer be attending the joint cabinet committee originally set up by Mr Blair and Paddy Ashdown. This significant break occurred shortly after 11 September and was therefore largely ignored.
As Mr Kennedy would be the first to admit, it was a symbolic split rather than a practical one. He observed shortly before the decision that "We may dramatically announce that we are no longer attending a cabinet committee that has not met for more than a year. With trumpets blazing we are marching out of a committee that no longer exists".
Still, the symbolism of the break has potency, and, ever since, a more liberated Mr Kennedy has been highly critical of the Government's approach to civil liberties, constitutional reform and the public services. This week he has suggested that he may join forces with the Conservatives in campaigning for a more democratic House of Lords. The Liberal Democrats are moving back towards their more familiar pre-Paddy Ashdown position, in which they proclaim with an easy conscience "a plague on both your houses".
Such a stance has had ramifications in the past. It helped Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s when the old SDP/Liberal Alliance was at least as anti-Labour as it was opposed to the Conservatives. The parties on the left were divided against each other, leaving a great deal of room for Mrs Thatcher to thrive with a relatively small proportion of the vote. One of the differences in 1997, and to some extent in 2001, was the fact that the two parties on the left of centre were more or less singing the same tune and, to some extent, co-operating by not fighting some seats too intensively.
The co-operation obviously benefited Mr Blair, who strode into power with massive majorities. In a way that should not be underestimated, it also helped Mr Ashdown and his party. For several years it made Mr Ashdown seem more important than he really was. This is part of the art of being a leader of a third party. The position is not especially important, so a perception of importance is the next best thing. But there were some practical benefits, such as sharing power in Scotland and a new, more proportional voting system for the European elections.
The Blair/Ashdown relationship remains one of the more fascinating in recent years. I write as someone who has read both volumes of the Ashdown diaries and, more sadly, enjoyed every page of them. Reviewers concluded on the whole that a wide-eyed Mr Ashdown was taken for a ride. This is not entirely true. Mr Blair was fairly open about his long-term intentions. Over their never-ending meetings he admitted he was keen on a merger between the two parties, while Mr Ashdown wanted proportional representation in a new, more pluralist, multi-party system. As early as July 1996 Mr Blair gave the game away in a New Statesman interview:
"I have always made my position clear on proportional representation. I am not persuaded of the case for PR."
"Does that mean you're against it?"
"Yes. I have never been convinced that small parties do not then get a disproportionate amount of power".
According to his diaries, Mr Ashdown hit the roof, and Mr Blair told him that his words had been taken out of context – but the interview was published as a transcript without comment or editing. Mr Blair was never a fan of PR, but he realised the necessity of two parties with similar views fighting the same corner, rather than each other. Mr Ashdown did, too. The results of the approach are there to see in two landslide victories.
Since winning his landslides Mr Blair has been demonstrating the severe limits of his own reforming zeal. The introduction of the Scottish Parliament and the abolition of the hereditary peers stand out as historic achievements, but they stand out in a vacuum. The Mayor of London does not have any powers, while the plans for the House of Lords have allowed Iain Duncan Smith to proclaim himself as a champion of democratic rights. Early on, Blairism was partly defined by its more pluralistic approach to politics. Mr Blair has shown himself to be no Blairite.
Indeed, in this area, the main Blairite in the Cabinet is the leader of the Commons, Robin Cook, who retains his early reforming zeal. It was Mr Cook in those early days of New Labour who put together a package of constitutional reforms with the Liberal Democrats, most of which have not been implemented or have been done so against the spirit in which they were originally composed. Mr Cook is one of the few cabinet ministers with strongish convictions, if only he had the courage to display them. Unfortunately he keeps his head down much of the time, with his fingers crossed that he remains in a job. He could be a much bigger player if he dared to be.
As Mr Cook's Blairite agenda does not have the backing of Mr Blair, Charles Kennedy has not had any choice but to announce a separation. Not that Mr Kennedy is acting with much sense of direction. His popular appeal is heavily dependent on the fact that he is a decent, witty, cheeky Charlie.
In terms of policy, he has condemned the Government for its approach to the euro while maintaining exactly the same stance himself; we should join when the economic conditions are right, he says. He attacks the Government for wavering over whether it will meet the European average for health spending without committing his party to do the same. Now he suggests that his party might support tax cuts, while berating the level of spending on public services. His party is conducting a policy review without any consistency of principle to underpin the exercise.
The political equivalent of a Relate counsellor would suggest a solution: the Government must become more robustly pluralist and the Liberal Democrats must renounce opportunistic emptiness. Instead, we are returning to a more familiar form of tribal politics in which the Lib Dems make a broad appeal to the disenchanted of both the major parties, Labour mocks the Lib Dems with a lofty disdain and the Conservatives attack both parties as left-of-centre, pro-European tax-and-spenders.
I, for one, have no doubt which party will be the beneficiaries of the changed situation. The last time such dynamics were in play was in the build-up to the 1992 election. And the Conservatives won it easily.Reuse content