Calling time on a flawed leader

IAN CLARKE In the darkest hour of the modern Labour Party, just before it almost fell to third place in the 1983 general election, mockery was heaped on a nice but ailing leader.


In the darkest hour of the modern Labour Party, just before it almost fell to third place in the 1983 general election, mockery was heaped on a nice but ailing leader.

A Private Eye cover showed a nurse leaning over the wheelchair of a geriatric patient ominously like the wild-white-haired Michael Foot. The medic was shouting in the old man's ear: "Nod your head if you want to stay on!"

Cruel wit, but it fairly hit the mark. A political leader had passed from hapless to helpless.

A similar caricature could now centre on Charles Kennedy, only this time the backdrop would be an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. ("My name is Charles. I'm an alcoholic and I want to be prime minister.")

Not that this leading alcoholic is any longer anonymous following his dramatic disclosure on Thursday evening. But the oddest fact is that the Westminster village knew all along.

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Rumours about Mr Kennedy's drink-ing habits began soon after he entered Parliament - at that watershed 1983 poll.

Boozing is an old Westminster tradition and especially, it has to be said, among Scottish members. It is the old male club's favourite way of relaxing (bars were open here for all-night sessions long before 24-hour licensing went national).

But the whispers grew that the youngest member of the Commons - who had inherited a strongly-Liberal highland and island constituency which happened to include his home turf - wasn't simply laid back.

He might also be laid up. Or laid out.

So although Mr Kennedy has just admitted receiving treatment for a "drink problem" for the past 18 months, the cause for concern runs back more than 18 years.

His work schedule was light from the outset, and although this was put down to laziness, it owed something to the kind of party lifestyle that has nothing to do with politics.

David Owen should go down in history as a fool because he preferred oblivion to the Lib Dem merger of Liberals and Social Democrats in which any fellow SDP luminary was set to prosper.

Although the Liberals had many more members and councillors and MPs, there was a charismatic glow around those former Social Democrats whose personalities and philosophy had so recently run Britain.

The other members of the Gang of Four - Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers - all became influential leaders in the House of Lords, before being followed by former Callaghan aide Lord McNally.

And the rising youngster who might be called the ward of Jenkins' ear was none other than Charles Kennedy.

When Tigger-happy Paddy Ashdown bounced out of the Lib Dem top job and into foreign troublespots, the sauntering Scot succeeded him on the principle espoused in the above paragraph: there was none other.

With the sanctimonious Simon Hughes irritating many more than he impresses, that lack of alternatives was also the key reason why he stayed on beyond two general election campaigns.

Some politicians are most admired by the people who know them least. One is Ken Livingstone. Another is Charles Kennedy.

The level of confidence decreases the closer you get to him - hence a near-majority of his shadow Cabinet, including North Norfolk's Norman Lamb, now serving a letter of no-confidence then starting to resign their posts.

This was precisely what the Kennedy admission of alcoholism and calling for a leadership poll had aimed to avert. The idea was that no leading Lib Dem would care to be seen wielding the dagger.

Although their Tory and Labour opponents often view them as opportunists, Lib Dems tend to be pleasant people.

They have that mixture of decency and diligence which goes down well when, after titanic effort (witness the story of Mr Lamb), they snatch seats at Westminster.

But these folk have to work harder than many of their Labour and Tory counterparts, who can still count on class-based constituencies. So a Lib Dem leader who isn't firing on all cylinders is a contradiction in terms.

Although Mr Kennedy has been helped by two apparently successful general elections - his almost anti-political approach pleasing many voters - the truth is, he should have done better.

I voted Lib Dem last time in spite of Mr Kennedy - and, in truth, regardless of most Liberal Democrat policies. I simply backed the only mainstream party opposing the Iraq war.

Given the blunders of Blairism and the then-ongoing disdain for the Tories, a more consistently focused liberal party was kicking at an open electoral door. That tally of 62 MPs, itself a modern record, should have doubled.

Mr Kennedy's dwindling band of senior backers does not help its case by pointing out that Churchill was at times nearly blitzed by drink. Our wartime leader was exceptional in every way.

But I do keep thinking of another long-lost statesman. When William Glad-stone, founder of modern Liberalism and champion of temperance, lost an election to the brewery-backed Tories, he said he had been brought down by a tide of gin and beer.

Add whisky and the same line would work for Mr Kennedy.