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Home > Politics

It’s a knockout

Charles Kennedy does battle with his demons

3 April 2004

Just as well those bombs didn’t go off. Quite apart from the dreadful mess they’d have made of Luton, a major terror attack in mainland Britain would have one very significant political result: people would turn in their thousands, as they turned in Spain, to the most visibly anti-war, pro-civil liberties party. And that party, the Liberal Democrats, would be fired straight to the front of the political stage. But given their current internal imbalance, they might very well topple off into the orchestra pit and end up with up a cello up their nethers.
Writing in this week's TFT, Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat Shadow to the Deputy Prime Minister, claims that “with [Charles Kennedy] returning fast to full health, and some of the more ridiculous press reporting behind us, we are well-placed to build on the distinctive opposition position we find ourselves in the post-Iraq world of Hutton and Butler." And yet privately, many senior Lib Dems have expressed concerns that uncertainty over the leadership could seriously damage confidence amongst voters.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that none of the best candidates to replace Kennedy have been prepared to rule themselves out of a possible leadership race.

Sir Menzies Campbell, at 62, the oldest and most experienced of the potential challengers, said last week that he regrets not standing against Charles Kennedy during the last leadership contest “for ten minutes a day”. Indeed, he can barely function in the morning without a strong cup of coffee and ten minutes spent banging his head against the door frame shouting, “Oh Menzies, you bloody fool!”

Campbell enjoys wide support, both amongst the party faithful and the electorate, for his eloquent challenges to Blair's war in Iraq. A Campbell campaign would be tremendously worrying for Kennedy, particularly after Ming’s impressive last-minute performance at the Budget debate, which Kennedy was forced to miss after suffering a stomach bug.

But Campbell is not the only candidate waiting in the wings. Simon Hughes, the MP for Bermondsey and Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor, came second to Kennedy in the last leadership election. He’ll be hoping that any leadership race comes long after June 10th, and yet, when contacted by TFT, a spokesperson for Hughes was unwilling to rule out a shift in Hughes’ focus away from the mayoral campaign should a leadership contest arise. Never say never, eh Simon?

Vince Cable, the 60-year-old Lib Dem Treasury spokesman is also looking like a legitimate challenger but it’s his 38-year-old deputy, David Laws, who many see as a better bet for the longer term future of the party. The millionaire former MD of Barclays has given credibility to his boss' fiscal policies, but his position on the right of the party may alienate traditional supporters.

Another possible candidate from the right is Mark Oaten. The Home Affairs spokesman and former PR man was given a very warm reception at the recent spring conference where his leader sweated profusely but still failed to shine. His ability to appeal to former Tory voters saw him increase his majority at the last election in what was previously a Tory seat.

And then of course there is Ed Davey. Despite his stated confidence in Charles Kennedy, Davey is another youthful contender from the right flank who’s rapidly emerging as one of the strongest challengers for a leadership contest. He is seen as a tough campaigner and managed to build a majority of only 52 in 1997 to 15,678 in 2001. Although some in the party worry that, at 38, he may be a tad too young.

This week, Kennedy announced he was “heading to the hills” to regather his energies for the fray. But the chances are, if he spends a week in a cottage in Pembrokeshire, fly fishing and reading Tolkein, he’s going to come back and find the locks changed and his bags on the doorstep.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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