2 Jun 2015

Are the Lib Dems shifting closer to Charles Kennedy’s ideal of the party?

Charles Kennedy’s single most celebrated political stand was against the Iraq war. But he had a distinctive stance on his own party’s positioning and one which may be about to undergo a revival.

His struggle with alcohol was his downfall but that saga ran concurrently and inseparably from a revival of economic liberalism in the Lib Dems which laid the ground for Nick Clegg‘s leadership and the coalition that ended last month.

When Charles Kennedy defeated Simon Hughes to win the leadership in 1997 (57 per cent to 43 per cent when other candidates were eliminated), Simon Hughes warned Mr Kennedy not to cosy up too much to Labour as many felt Paddy Ashdown had. When Nick Clegg decided his party had no choice but to go into coalition with the Conservatives, Charles Kennedy was one of a handful of MPs who could not raise their hands in support.

The Orange Book had been published the year before, inspired by David Laws, who would play a central role in Nick Clegg’s leadership years later. Its supporters wanted to yank the party back to the Gladstonian tradition of economic liberalism after what they felt had been a 1980s digression into “tax and spend” statism in reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

By 2005, restless front bench Lib Dem MPs who supported the Orange Book agenda to varying degrees, were lobbying for the party to drop its commitment to policies like the 50p tax rate which had been at the top of the party’s 2005 manifesto. They felt Charles Kennedy was merely presiding over the rows at the party’s 2005 conference and not leading decisively.

For some, the accusations of lacklustre leadership were about incidents like the 2005 general election manifesto launch when Charles Kennedy seriously messed up (claiming it was because he was sleep deprived because of the birth of his son).

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For some, the drinking had become a big and repeated problem – it seemed that whenever two or more Lib Dem MPs gathered, the subject of Mr Kennedy’s drinking came up. (Greg Hurst’s 2006 biography recounts the whole saga in authoritative and gruesome detail.) For some, there was a project underway to refashion the Lib Dems and ditch costly spending commitments. For some MPs, these issues all coalesced.

And in the end, as Charles Kennedy said in his resignation statement, it was his MPs who rose up against him. Direct challenges started at a shadow cabinet meeting in December 2005, some Lib Dem frontbenchers raised questions about his leadership.

When word reached Charles Kennedy’s office in January 2006 that ITV News was going to announce he had a drink problem he tried to head off the problem and took to the airwaves himself to call a leadership election. He said he would be a candidate and dared others to stand against him. Then 25 of his fellow MPs – many of them would become ministers in the coalition that followed the 2010 election – said he had to go immediately and the next day he went.

His biggest electoral triumph was the 2005 election when the Lib Dems came back with 62 MPs, its best result since 1922. He watched that tally slip to 57 in the 2010 general election and then nearly vaporise in 2015 when he lost his own seat in the SNP landslide.

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Back in 2007, when the party had gone through two coups and three leaders (Charles Kennedy, Ming Campbell and the interim leader Vince Cable) in two years, Charles Kennedy said: “The time has come to pass the dagger to a new generation.” He watched the bickering between Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg without revealing his preference, though Chris Huhne made much in that campaign of having been on the anti-Iraq war march with Charles Kennedy in contrast to Nick Clegg.

Now Tim Farron offers the beleaguered Lib Dems a shift closer to the direction of Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems and away from the Orange/Clegg journey – the Lib Dems still fighting the strategic battle that started on his watch but must now continue without him.

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