Steve Richards: The enigma of Charles Kennedy, a flawed man in tune with a fragile nation

He is an authentic voice. Voters see through those leaders that try too hard to be what they are not
Click to follow

What is astonishing about Charles Kennedy is not that he is in so much trouble, but that he is in so little.

The authoritative revelations in a new biography, Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw, by Greg Hurst, read like one long wild night on the town. Mr Kennedy had a drink problem before becoming leader. The problem got worse once he had become leader. He failed to turn up for the Budget debate, one of the biggest events of the year. He was drunk while making a speech to students.

A planned press conference in which Mr Kennedy was to admit a drink problem was cancelled at the last minute. In the meantime, Mr Kennedy and his staff denied in public and in private that there was any problem at all.

Not surprisingly, the reaction of Liberal Democrat MPs to the publication of the book is one of extreme concern. This is not the publicity they sought at the start of a new political year. The nature of their concern, though, is revealing. It is the exact opposite to what might have been expected.

They do not worry for Mr Kennedy's reputation. Instead they are alarmed that a soaring Mr Kennedy will steal the show at their party conference in September, that when he makes his speech he will upstage them all. In addition, they are concerned that it will be Mr Kennedy, rather than any of them, that engages the wider electorate at the conference and beyond.

They worry with good cause. Mr Kennedy's successor is under pressure to deliver a sense of excitement when he speaks. Months ago, the senior MP Simon Hughes told me in an interview that the conference would be the big test for Sir Menzies Campbell.

Yet excitement does not come naturally to Sir Ming as a speech-maker, and if he tries too hard the vital ingredient will prove even more elusive. In contrast, on his day - and there were few of them when he was leader - Mr Kennedy is capable of spell-binding oratory. He is one of the best speakers in Britain. His speech at a rally in Cambridge at the last election was the most electrifying delivered by any leader in the campaign. The next day he was hopelessly dithering.

In politics, events that are billed in advance as high theatre rarely turn out to be theatrical. It is quite possible that a single speech next month from Mr Kennedy in a Bournemouth conference centre will be neither here nor there. But on the second point, Mr Kennedy's capacity to connect with the broader electorate, I would bet my house on it: the recent revelations will have done him no harm. Voters like him and he has an easy rapport with them. That will not change.

Reactions of audiences on BBC's Question Time are always an illuminating barometer. When Mr Kennedy appeared on the panel recently the audience swooned, even though he was elusive as to whether he had fully addressed the drink problem.

At by-elections, Mr Kennedy can draw a crowd, a magnetism not associated with other Liberal Democrats. Even though Mr Kennedy's alcoholism and the cover-up was well known, a recent opinion poll suggested that Mr Kennedy would be far more popular as leader of his party than Sir Ming.

How does he pull it off? How does he get away with it? Mr Kennedy performs on a relatively small stage and stands out in a party with few stars. Bigger players in bigger parties face incomparably more forbidding tests. If Gordon Brown did not turn up for the Budget he would be finished. Even so, the answers in relation to Mr Kennedy tell us something about the qualities of leadership required in modern Britain.

Part of the answer is that we do not know the answer. As with all popular politicians there is an element of mystery and enigma about Mr Kennedy. Mr Kennedy gives the impression of holding something back, as if what you see is not precisely what you get. None of it quite adds up. He is capable of being stubborn in his ambition, acquiring the leadership, keeping it for years and refusing at first to resign when it was obvious he was doomed.

At other times he was laid-back to the point where leadership appeared to be a matter of causal indifference. At last year's annual conference, activists and others were wandering around aimlessly, as if they were visiting a rundown shopping centre on a rainy afternoon, a lack of leadership reflected in the chaos of the party's organisation. There was no sign of grip.

Yet Mr Kennedy could be ruthlessly firm, breaking ties with Labour, openly pro-European, a brave opponent of the war against Iraq at a time when Mr Blair was claiming the mantle of courage for weakly supporting President Bush. Mr Kennedy was also a supporter of immigration who refused to play any populist cards, even when fighting by-elections in safe Tory seats.

The conflicting sides - ambition and indifference, chaos and order, a principled strategy and no strategy at all - are hard to reconcile. They are part of the enigma. Yet, on one front, Mr Kennedy has shown consistency. At no time has he tried to be what he is not. Like Ken Livingstone, he is capable of talking about politics in the way that voters do, as a conversation punctuated with humour and lifted by nuance and changes of tone. More widely, he likes a smoke and David Bowie. Neither is fashionable these days, but he does not mind. He is what he is.

Other aspiring leaders should take note. Gordon Brown claims to listen to the Arctic Monkeys at breakfast ("Sarah, switch off Ed Balls on the Today programme, I want to hear 'I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor', the Arctics at their best"), avid Cameron tries too hard to be Tony Blair. Sir Ming Campell has been doing some media training, always an ominous sign.

Mr Kennedy is an authentic voice. For a leader, having your own distinctively credible voice is the key to making a link with the electorate. Voters see through those that try too hard to be what they are not.

The latest revelations will do Mr Kennedy no harm and will not hold him back. He is too driven in a laid-back way. He is too obsessed with politics, even if he needs to escape from it. He is also too close in his views to the progressive majority that lacks popular and confident voices in national politics and the media.

Most of Britain is pro-European, opposed the war against Iraq and the dangerously zany attempts to "remake" the Middle East, despairs of President Bush, wants decent, well-funded public services and recognise they have to be paid for, is not hysterically fearful of foreigners - and drinks to excess. David Bowie can still wow them too.

Mr Kennedy is a frail, erratic, tolerant social democrat. He gets away with it because he speaks for modern, fragile, progressive Britain when few dare to do so.