Tory revival puts Kennedy's position in doubt

Ben Russell,Political Correspondent
Wednesday 14 December 2005 01:38

Charles Kennedy is facing a renewed row over his leadership as anxiety over the party's response to David Cameron spills into the open.

Mr Kennedy repeated his vow last night to fight on as Liberal Democrat leader to the general election and beyond despite the fresh tension which emerged during a meeting of his senior front bench colleagues yesterday.

He tried to slap down speculation on his future, denying reports he planned to stand down at the party's spring conference. He demanded that colleagues end anonymous briefings against him in the press. Allies denied reports that he was effectively on probation after the new outbreak of rumblings about his laid-back style of leadership.

Mr Kennedy spoke out as he confronted colleagues after a flurry of speculation over his position last week when the BBC presenter Andrew Neil said he had it "on good authority" that he was preparing to quit the leadership in the spring.

The Liberal Democrat leader said he had lodged a complaint with the BBC about the report and insisted that anonymous briefings must end. Aides said the party's shadow cabinet had unanimously agreed to his request.

The meeting was said to be "calm and thoughtful", but sources acknowledged tensions within Liberal Democrat ranks over the party's performance

Senior figures were said to be "nervous" at the rapid progress made by the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, amid fears that the Liberal Democrats could be sidelined by a resurgent Tory opposition. One source said: "You could certainly see that there is inevitably going to be nervousness when there is so much publicity being given to a new leader of the Conservative Party. There are certainly all sorts of people out there briefing."

A spokeswoman for Mr Kennedy refused to comment on discussions within the party's shadow cabinet. She said: "There was a useful discussion about the complaint to the BBC. There was irritation expressed by shadow cabinet members about anonymous briefings that have been appearing in the press and the shadow cabinet unanimously agreed that such briefings must stop.

"There is no better source on the question of when Charles intends to step down than Charles himself and he has said both publicly and privately that he will go on."

One front-bencher added: "There is no trouble about Charles. Andrew Neil was being cheeky."

Mr Kennedy, who has been leader of the Liberal Democrats for six years, was re-elected unopposed as party leader after the general election held earlier this year. But he has been dogged by speculation about his position, despite securing 62 Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster, the party's best electoral performance since the 1920s.

Yesterday's tensions come just months after the party's annual conference in Blackpool was marred by speculation over Mr Kennedy's leadership, which forced him to use his set-piece conference speech to confront those in the party "so full of themselves they also think they're full of better ideas about leadership".

Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat's spokesman on Northern Ireland, spoke out - in an article which he wrote as part of the party's policy review - about the need to campaign more aggressively.

He warned: "The party seems unwilling or unable to intuitively connect with Liberal Democratic issues and run with the ball. Worse still, when the issues are offered to us we sometimes stand back and let someone else collect the torch."

Yesterday he insisted that his comments were not intended as an attack on Mr Kennedy, but had been aimed instead at the wider membership.

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