I can’t say that, on Saturday 7th January 2006, I am surprised that Charles Kennedy has resigned. Earlier on in the week I would have been. It seemed as though there were a few MPs who were unhappy with Charles Kennedy’s leadership, but that he did have the support of ‘grass roots’ members. It certainly seemed that way from reading a lot of Lib Dem blogs. Even with Vince Cable’s letter that signed by half of his front bench, it seemed as though the ordinary members still wanted Kennedy to go on.
But that all seemed to change with Charles Kennedy’s coincident announcements that he had a drink problem, and that there would be a leadership election (and the following Newsnight poll that suggested that half of his MPs had lost confidence in him). Overnight, Lib Dem bloggers seemed to change their mind completely.
(Update: Please see the comments, where James Graham clarifies the the reasons why he changed his mind.)
Since Thursday the fact that Charles Kennedy had a drink problem has been described as a “badly-kept secret”, which isn’t really the case. As Nick Robinson pointed out on his blog, it was a bit of an open secret that he maybe sometimes had a bit more to drink than was wise. But the idea that it was a medical problem and that he was undergoing treatment was certainly a surprise.
At first I wasn’t too sure what to make of it. The fact that the announcement was coupled with a leadership contest made me feel that the issue over whether or not he was fit to lead the party in his condition would be resolved easily enough by Lib Dem members.
As the night wore on, though, it became clear that holding a leadership contest simply wasn’t enough. Front-running contenders all refused to throw their hat into the ring, having previously promised that they would not stand against Kennedy. Yet it was clear that the parliamentary party had lost confidence in Kennedy and that change was needed.
He was going to spend the weekend with his family. But the inevitability of his resignation presumably led him to get it over and done with today. I was surprised when I heard that he had an announcement to make — but it was no surprise that that announcement was that he would not stand in the forthcoming leadership election.
I have no idea whether or not Kennedy’s drink problem affected his ability to do the job — I don’t know anything like enough about the issue. If you believe what you hear, though, it has been the cause of him missing particular engagements. And there have also been concerns about his over all performance, and that this may well have been affected by his drinking.
I read that some MPs once cornered him in his office to get Kennedy to admit that he was drinking too much. So, although I doubt that Kennedy’s drink problem is the real reason why MPs wanted him out (undoubtedly some MPs are thinking about their careers here), I would like to think that part of it all was a real concern about Kennedy’s health. Do I still trust MPs too much?
But now the Lib Dems need to think about the future. Nosemonkey thinks they’re fucked. I was not so sure. But then I was watching BBC News 24 and they read out a whole load of emails — and every single one of them criticised the Lib Dems for, as they saw it, stabbing Charles Kennedy in the back. But, although leadership crises like this never play well with the public in the short term, I don’t see this being a big issue at the next election, for instance.
In the long term, getting rid of Charles Kennedy won’t have been a problem. Whether or not you think Charles Kennedy was a successful leader of the Liberal Democrats depends, of course, on how you define success. You can say that no third party has had as much representation in the House of Commons since the 1920s. But on the other hand you can see last year’s election as a massive open goal (because of Iraq and the illiberal nature of both of the other major parties) that the Lib Dems failed to capitalise on. Remember the ‘decapitation strategy’? It completely failed.
I don’t really subscribe to the latter view. At the time of the election, I felt as though the Lib Dems did just about as well as you could expect under the circumstances (ie. the grossly warped electoral system). Furthermore, Charles Kennedy seemed to appeal to an awful lot of voters. Mind you, a lot of that appeal may have disappeared on Thursday — he had turned into a liar, and it is difficult to have a liar leading a party which is trying to capitalise on the lack of trust in Tony Blair.
As a Lib Dem supporter / voter (but not member) I don’t have any major issues with Charles Kennedy no longer being leader of the Lib Dems. But they must choose the right leader. Electing, say, Mark Oaten as their new leader would be a disaster: we would then have three Tony Blairs, which is exactly what we don’t need at the moment. Simon Hughes, although I am sure he is a nice enough person, does seem a little bit weird. The only other really notable Lib Dem is Lembit Öpik, but he plays the Boris Johnson role in the Lib Dems.
However, it seems most likely that Menzies Campbell is going to be the new leader, which, despite what Guido may say, I think will be excellent. The Lib Dems face a tough time ahead. They must tackle an electoral system that is grossly biased in favour of Labour, and a rejuvenated Conservative party that is trying to plonk its arse on the centre ground, towards Lib Dem territory (albeit rather unconvincingly).
I think Menzies Campbell would be the perfect person to lead the Lib Dems through that. But his age means that he can’t stay in power for a decade like many Liberal leaders have done — so those voting for Campbell will have to keep one eye on the new generation of Lib Dem MPs.
Update: Tim Worstall has an interesting post. One party worker apparently reckons that Charles Kennedy has been an alcoholic since before he became leader.