Leading article: This demeaning spectacle

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The Independent Online

The latest revelations concerning the extent of Charles Kennedy's drinking problem cast the Liberal Democrats in a most unattractive light. It is true that alcoholics are often good at concealing their illness. And it is also true that the former Liberal Democrat leader had a tight circle of advisers who became adept at covering up for him. But, as we now know, some of the party's most senior figures - among them the present leader, Sir Menzies Campbell - were aware of Mr Kennedy's condition from as early as 1999.

The party's first duty was to demonstrate a little sympathy for a man wrestling with personal difficulties. Mr Kennedy's friends and supposed colleagues should have done all they could to persuade him to seek professional help. Only then, if he had refused to face up to his alcoholism, should they have sought ways to remove him from his post. We are told that in 2001 senior party figures did indeed press Mr Kennedy to seek help, and there is evidence that he was confronting his personal demons. But when Sir Menzies Campbell found himself asked to stand in for Mr Kennedy on Budget day in 2004 at half an hour's notice, he and others should have realised that Mr Kennedy's condition was getting worse, not better.

But nothing was done, despite a looming general election at which Mr Kennedy was being offered to voters as a potential prime minister. Time and again, the party's most senior figures shied away from doing what was necessary, all the while happily fuelling the Westminster rumour mill with disloyal briefings and gossip.

Mr Kennedy should not have fought the last election as leader, both for his own sake and the sake of his party. But his senior colleagues and advisers share the blame for the mess, which played a significant part in the party's failure to take advantage of a historic chance to redraw the political landscape. Let us not forget that when allegations of a drink problem were put to the former Liberal Democrat leader, he did not evade them; he flatly denied them. Those around him should have been alive to the dire implications of the leader of their party lying to the electorate. When action was finally taken to bring Mr Kennedy down eight months ago, it was done in the most unseemly manner. The end came with a messy coup that left a sour taste.

Now the Liberal Democrats are left with the worst of all worlds. Not only have they failed to make a clean break with the Kennedy era, they have forfeited a degree of public trust and tarnished their new leader's reputation. This is a demeaning and damaging spectacle from which the Liberal Democrats will not quickly recover.

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