Given the choice between a drunken Charles Kennedy and a sober Sir Menzies Campbell — to adapt the Times’s famous comparison of George Brown and Harold Wilson — we now know that the Liberal Democrat high command chose the former. There were four frontbenchers gathered in a room in March 2004 when they received first-hand confirmation that they were indeed being led by an alcoholic. This explained his mysterious absences, his slurred words in morning meetings and general level of inactivity. So the quartet, including Sir Menzies, took a unanimous decision: to do nothing.
It mattered little. Leadership is not so important to today’s Lib Dems, who have become more of a shapeless organism than a structured political party, thriving in places where one would not expect. They do not need central direction. Since Mr Kennedy resigned (his party was too shambolic even to organise a decent coup) it has scored by-election successes that elude the Cameron Conservatives. While bad leadership was toxic for the Tories, Lib Dem activists have learnt to thrive on anarchy.
Just how much anarchy is evident in Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw by Greg Hurst, a political journalist who has caused the Lib Dems too much trouble to be ignored. ‘I once suggested posting him the minutes of all our private meetings,’ Sir Menzies recently told me. ‘It would save the bother of all those leak inquiries.’ What his book exposes is more scandalous than a plot for a Kennedy assassination: that there was no plot at all, even while knowledge of the problem was widespread.
Any functional party would certainly have staged such a putsch. Mr Kennedy’s drinking was an open secret — albeit one which no journalist could prove. The rumours had spread so widely that, when he stood up in the Commons, Labour MPs opposite would taunt him by mimicking an alcoholic’s shaking hand. I once met a researcher who claimed it was her job to pop peppermints into his mouth when his breath was too overpowering. All this, and more, the Lib Dems put up with.
They did so partly because they knew they had at the helm a supremely gifted politician who found he was able to shine with a minimum of effort in a ramshackle party which lacked the backbone to demand better behaviour. While the quality of his speeches had dimmed from his early days, he laid on flashes of brilliance for television. This was enough to give him popularity ratings which his rivals could only dream of. The Kennedy factor became a substitute for Lib Dem policy.
For the party’s MPs, it was frustrating to have exchanged a leader who got up at 5 a.m. (Paddy Ashdown) for one who went to bed at 5 a.m. Yet Mr Kennedy had made absenteeism into a powerful political weapon. The Lib Dems had become a blank canvas, on to which frustrated voters could project their own values. This remains true today: the third party’s electoral appeal lies not in compelling policy ideas, but in becoming a ‘none of the above’ option at a time when the public is generally exasperated with its political class.
The motor of the Lib Dems lies not in its central office but in its hugely motivated grassroots members who now form a formidable campaigning force. One of the party’s most stunning by-election results — overturning a 11,500 Labour majority in Dunfermline & West Fife just nine months after a general election — was achieved when it had no leader. In the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election two months ago the Lib Dems were just 633 votes away from another triumph.
This is why it is deceptive to judge the Lib Dems by their Westminster organisation, or lack thereof. Parliamentary performance counts for little nowadays, as Mr Kennedy demonstrated in last year’s election by picking up almost every vote Labour lost. Rival MPs made mocking hiccupping sounds in the chamber, and the party was forced to explain unscheduled absences with statements like ‘Mr Kennedy observed the two-minute silence from his room’. It did not affect the Lib Dems’ numinous appeal.
To those trying to engage and defeat the Lib Dems on serious issues, there is nothing more frustrating. Lack of principles makes coalition easier, but Mr Kennedy planned to resist entering coalition with either party, telling friends he preferred ad hoc alliances with the Tories on some issues, such as opposing identity cards, and with Labour on tax and spending. Sir Menzies is regarded as being more open to formal coalition — in so far as this is practical with Gordon Brown, who would resent sharing power with his own Cabinet, let alone with another party.
Mr Kennedy makes a brief return in a fortnight’s time when the party holds its autumn conference in Brighton. We can expect him to eclipse Sir Menzies with the type of conversational speech at which he excels — bidding an emotional farewell to a party membership which he believes would have kept him, with all his faults, given the choice. Retirement is a depressing prospect for a 46-year-old. Yet his tantalising hints at a comeback lack credibility. A more plausible threat to Sir Menzies comes from Chris Huhne, who I am told will use the party conference to stake his own claim for the future.
In fact, the Kennedy legacy is most pointedly visible in the new style adopted by the Conservatives. David Cameron’s decision to create a two-year policy vacuum by delaying a policy review until the end of next year is straight out of the Kennedy playbook, giving the Tory leader breathing space in which to define his media image without getting bogged down in detail. So far, the Tory high command believes the strategy has worked perfectly. Even the much-derided ‘hug a hoodie’ speech is regarded at party HQ as an outright success. For all the scorn at Westminster, they argue, the message was received and understood in the wider country. To be fair, this surprising analysis of the speech is shared by many at No. 10.
But perhaps Mr Kennedy’s greatest gift to the Tories was the strong anti-war position he guided his party towards, which has created a strong and lasting headache for Labour. Sir Menzies was initially hesitant in opposing the Iraq invasion in such emphatic terms but in this — as in much else — Mr Kennedy got his way. As a result the Lib Dems are now the party of choice for those former Labour voters who opposed the war and are disgusted by its aftermath. For as long as Mr Blair remains in office, Labour will be unable to satisfy the anti-Israeli, anti-American, anti-war constit-uency that has defected to the Lib Dems. The question is whether Gordon Brown would win these voters back.
Meanwhile, the third party is only too happy to be of service. The staged defections of 30-odd (mainly Muslim) Labour party members to the Lib Dems last week in Margaret Beckett’s constituency warns of a trend which could pave the way to Tory government. The Lib Dems could unravel the New Labour coalition from the Left while the Cameron Conservatives tug from the centre-Right — sending Mr Brown spinning into oblivion.
It is a personal tragedy for Mr Kennedy that he has to watch as his ideas are put to use by others. He was, as the new biography shows, the author of his own downfall. But he may yet lay claim to being the author of Labour’s downfall, too.