Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Chloroform for the voting classes

Ming Campbell discusses the leadership election with Sarah Teather [not]

I'll remember when Kennedy finally resigned because I was in Cambridge at the time and 3 of us were watching his resignation speech repeated at 15 minute intervals on BBC News 24. By that point I was somewhat glad he had decided to resign because it felt as if the only way it could have felt more of a pantomine was if Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes had climbed into either end of a yellow dove suit and attempted the can-can outside 4 Cowley Street.

Whose responsibility it was that it reached that point it, of course, a different matter. As a not-at-all-prominent-but-active-member I had felt a bit like we were drifting for a while. It's debatable whether we could have done better at the general election and I know we have a problem getting into the media as the 3rd party but we didn't seem to be actively raising our profile after the election as I felt we should have been. The worst time for me was Kennedy's speech at Federal Conference. The whole conference was about defining our future direction and new policy initiatives and Kennedy's keynote speech felt almost identical to the one I'd heard the year before. I can't blame the MPs who arrived post-May and the ones who'd been there longer feeling utterly frustrated by a lack of thrust and direction. Further, from listening to a number of the interviews with Lib Dem MPs on Channel 4 news it appears that many of them were complicit in covering up Charles Kennedy's drink problem over a relatively extended period which became very wearing. David Laws in the Guardian said that: "What was fatal was his inability to resolve this problem after many years and "last chances". Almost all his closest colleagues lost confidence in him because his drink problem seemed never-ending, and because this undermined his ability to give the party a distinctive message."

A good move would have been for Kennedy to resign after the general election under the auspices of spending more time with Donald ('spending more time with ones family' has become a classic euphemism for being dismissed. There was a wonderful sketch done by Bremmer, Bird and Fortune about Alan Milburn in which a woman questions him at a meeting about his decision to spend more time with his family. He asks who she is and she replies "your wife"). An alternative would have been to own up either just before or after his treatment and to take a sabbatical. This didn't happen.

Instead the issue came to a head with his imminent exposure as a recovering alcoholic by ITN. His reaction was to admit everything and call for a leadership election with him standing. This looks rather like an attempt to stay in office by going over the head of the MPs. Sadly, had he won, he would never have been credible again because the media would have been looking for any signs of Charles being as p***d as a newt. Any family problems, genuine illness or poor performance would have been used to lose our message in a morass of snide remarks about tired and emotional Scotsmen. And that's if he'd stayed sober... The difficulty of staying 'on the wagon' in the House of Commons (somewhere around 15 bars all with subsidised alcohol) whilst juggling the Lib Dem leadership and a young family would probably be beyond anyone. In short, once he was exposed, he had to resign but... he didn't. The result was that as the long-term discontents came out the woodwork they looked Shakespearesque ("Is that a dagger in your sandals or are you just pleased to see me?") and as he continued to refuse to rule himself out of the leadership contest, it descended into farce.

"Et tu Cable?" Just imagine him less muscle-bound and with ginger hair

It would have been very hard for anyone to stand against him even if he was still a credible candidate by that point, not least because they would make themselves the focus of anger generated by the public bloodletting. So I feel sad that Charles appeared to fan the flames with the "Ook, they've done me and the party over" tone of his resignation speech 'I said... that I thought it was only fair to give our party members their say over my continuing leadership... I requested the opening of a leadership election... Since then it has been open to any other Liberal Democrat MP to announce their candidacy and to stand against me... None have decided to do so... '. After all, one of Geoffrey Wheatcroft's theories for the decline of the Tories in 'The Strange Death of Tory England' was bitterness generated by apparent backstabbings - once in 1963 and again over Thatcher.

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