Leading article: Mr Kennedy should step down. And not because of his drink problem

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The Independent Online

The past few days were all about Charles Kennedy: his courage - or desperation - in admitting his drink problem, his long history of denials and his chances of surviving as the leader of the Liberal Democrats. With the answer to this question abundantly clear, the next few days must be about the party.

When he addressed reporters to acknowledge that he had sought medical advice about his drinking, Mr Kennedy also announced a contest for the party leadership. First impressions were that he was boldly submitting himself to a challenge that would result in his confirmation or his departure. "Back me or sack me," he was saying, in the manner of John Major, in the hope of eliminating the hostile briefing once and for all.

Except that closer scrutiny exposed a rather different, even cynical, calculation. Mr Kennedy had thrown down his gauntlet in the (then) reasonably safe knowledge that none of the party's heavyweights would pick it up - and in the expectation that his grass-roots popularity would give him victory if it came to a poll of members. In so doing, he was avoiding a vote of confidence in the parliamentary party, bypassing his sternest critics and appealing to the membership over their heads.

The result, as we saw yesterday, was meltdown in the parliamentary party. While stalwarts such as Sir Menzies Campbell, Mark Oaten and others expressly ruled themselves out of a leadership contest if Mr Kennedy was standing, and the party president, Simon Hughes, deferred judgement - on the grounds that it was his responsibility to organise the election, an anti-Kennedy insurrection gathered pace by the hour. By the end of the day most of Mr Kennedy's frontbench team had forsaken him. This is no position from which to lead either the third largest political party in the country or a credible third-party opposition, even if a leadership vote in the country could be won.

Over the past eight months, Mr Kennedy's lacklustre leadership has lost the Liberal Democrats some of the ground they won before the last election. They have been unable to capitalise either on the weakness of the Conservatives as they went through their own long drawn-out leadership contest or on Labour's divisions over Mr Blair's plans for more reform.

Now, with David Cameron comfortably ensconced as Conservative leader and making a direct pitch for Liberal Democrat voters, the party needs a high national profile and strong leadership more than ever. Local elections are only four months away, and the combination of a vigorous Tory campaign and a leadership crisis among the Liberal Democrats could be disastrous for the party in the country. Mr Kennedy will have to recognise the inevitable sooner or later; it would be in the party's interests for him to depart sooner, so facilitating a genuine contest for a new leader among the strongest contenders.

But if Mr Kennedy does reverse his decision to stand in the contest he declared on Thursday, this is bound to raise a broader question about the prospects for any politician who admits an alcohol problem. Is Mr Kennedy not being punished for his honesty? Is alcoholism itself a bar to high office?

We believe not. Charles Kennedy's position was undermined not because he spoke out, but because he did so late and under duress and because his leadership of the Liberal Democrats in recent months has been inadequate. His has been a brave voice in Parliament - over the Iraq war, on the environment and on civil liberties. We hope he will remain an MP, but his position as leader is untenable.