Steve Richards: Killing their king is just the beginning of the Liberal Democrats' problems

The question is not why they have acted so ruthlessly now, but why they failed to act earlier
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The Independent Online

After forcing their leader to resign, Liberal Democrats must be feeling traumatised. They had better get used to it. There are more bitter blows to come as a bewildered party readjusts at a time when the media pays it rare attention. The Liberal Democrats were unsure of their national purpose before the brutal but necessary removal of Charles Kennedy. His resignation means a supposedly serious national party is no longer led by someone with a drink problem, but the drama of recent days fails to answer a single question about the Liberal Democrats' future direction as a third force in British politics.

Normally Liberal Democrats complain about the lack of media attention. On one level they have a point. Most of the time they unveil bucketloads of policies and virtually nobody notices. But it is now clear they have been saved by the indifference of the media. The question that should be asked of Liberal Democrat MPs is not why they acted so ruthlessly in the last few days but why they failed to act earlier. They chose meekly to become participants in a cover-up. During the build-up to the last general election they sought to project Mr Kennedy as a potential Prime Minister when they knew he was battling with alcohol.

Their reticence reflects a paucity of ambition, an instinctive sense that they would be able to get away with it because the media would not be greatly bothered and they would not be close to power once the election was over. Imagine an equivalent attempt to cover up a drinking problem that was undermining Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron. It would remain secret for less than 10 seconds.

Forget the sanctimonious nonsense about Mr Kennedy lying about his addiction. I do not blame him for a lack of candour, especially as the last general election came into view. It would have been an act of perversity for Mr Kennedy to declare something along these lines: "I have a drink problem: Vote Liberal Democrat." But if his MPs were ruthlessly serious about the pursuit of power they would have engineered their deadly coup much earlier. To be precise, they should have acted when they recognised that the drinking was having an adverse impact on Mr Kennedy's performance as a leader.

This is all that matters. Leaders should be entitled to a private life unless their actions have adverse consequences on their judgements and performance as a public figure. Indeed given the hypocritical hysteria of the media, public figures are right to be evasive about their private problems if they are flourishing in their public duties. When leaders are performing to their full potential it is irrelevant if they are having a hundred affairs enhanced by a bottle or two. Only when they perform poorly as a result do these matters become immediately significant. Evidently for the Liberal Democrats, immediacy was not an issue.

Such complacency reflects a wider casual approach to national politics that neither Labour nor the Conservatives would be allowed to get away with. Here are a few examples, but I could list many more: at their pre-election conference in 2004 senior figures launched their "orange book", a series of policy ideas that were in some cases far removed from the proposals they were putting forward at the approaching election. The authors' timing was naively inept. The leader should not have allowed them to go ahead.

Policies towards the euro have changed several times in a way that would cause mayhem in the other parties; although led by an impressively sophisticated economics team, spending commitments are made recklessly still under the figleaf of taxation policies that are nowhere near as fruitful as the plans imply.

Now the parliamentary party must raise its game in a more difficult context. The Labour government is more robust than it seems. Note how Tony Blair in his BBC interview yesterday went out of his way to stress that Gordon Brown would sustain New Labour as its next leader and was not a "road block to reform". Mr Blair is correct in both these assessments. He and his party will thrive more if he stresses occasionally the potential for a continuing Labour government after his departure, rather than implying as he did at his last Downing Street press conference that nobody would be able to cope when he is gone.

I would bet on Mr Blair and Mr Brown managing just to pull off the much-vaunted smooth transition. Indeed high-level meetings are taking place regularly in an attempt to ensure such a handover is achieved. Meanwhile David Cameron is repositioning his party, seeking to follow New Labour's route to the centre ground. No wonder some Liberal Democrats twitch nervously. They do more than twitch. They have shot their leader.

Ironically Mr Kennedy offered a partial route-map for the future in his substantial and dignified resignation speech on Saturday. His successor would be well advised to follow it. In particular Mr Kennedy highlighted the trap of defining the Liberal Democrats in reaction to the activities of the other parties. Those Liberal Democrats that urge a move to the right in response to Mr Cameron's early and imprecise attempts to seize the centre ground are strategically naïve and argue against the progressive spirit that evidently drives most of their party. As Mr Kennedy argued, they have a distinctive pitch in relation to their defence of civil liberties, enthusiasm for Europe, and attachment to international law.

During his leadership, there were times when Mr Kennedy displayed immense political courage in articulating these values. When he did so, it worked in electoral terms. His successor should note the by-election victories in supposedly safe Conservative seats in which Mr Kennedy refused to play any populist cards when highlighting policies on immigration, taxation and Europe. He should also note that when Mr Kennedy argued originally against the war he was derided in much of the media. Vindication came later. Mr Kennedy was at his best when at his boldest. It was at such times he was rewarded electorally.

Some of his MPs argue that this is not the case and the Liberal Democrats should have done much better at the last election. Such an assessment underestimates the challenge posed by a Labour government that was presiding over a relatively stable economy, and a slightly more professional Conservative Party. In such a daunting context Mr Kennedy can claim an electorally impressive legacy in the form of a large parliamentary party.

Its more ambitious members are about to discover how difficult it is for a third party leader to operate in what is still at Westminster essentially a two-party system. Soon the media will turn away. Divisions and frustrated ambition are bound to surface once more. The last few days have been emotionally draining for them. Now they are in for the shock of their lives.