An amusing nice guy ... who doesn't look like a statesman

No party has a monopoly on making its leader embark on that well known political pastime of walking the plank. Yesterday it was Iain Duncan Smith, today it is Charles Kennedy. Even Labour's hero Keir Hardie was not immune from internal plots, and George Lansbury was fatally undermined by Ernie Bevin who accused him of "hawking his conscience around from body to body, asking what he should do with it." Nor is trial by the media an innovation of recent years; Asquith was forced out of office in December 1916 by Lloyd George's machinations, powerfully backed by the Northcliffe press.

Some of us have been here before. Long before the bizarre events on Bodmin Moor, which lost the dog lovers' vote, Jeremy Thorpe was the subject of a number of attempted coups, often with the aim of replacing him with Richard Wainwright. I recall being summoned to Richard's Leeds home late in 1969, together with William - now Lord - Wallace, to be told by Richard to abandon the campaign. Only the intervention of the 1970 General Election and the death in a road accident immediately thereafter of Jeremy's wife, Caroline, muted the criticisms.

What is relatively new is the television age which gives the electors the vivid opportunity to pass individual judgement on the quality of party leaders. The intrusion of the ubiquitous TV screen into every home, aided and abetted by the demise of any deference towards politicians, ensures that today's party leaders have to pass the charisma test.

However much we might mourn the passing of competence, commitment and intellectual capacity as sufficient qualifications for political leadership, the reality is that it has to be underpinned by an ability to communicate direct to an increasingly sceptical electorate. It would have ruled out the dedicated and competent Clement Attlee but enhanced that plausible fascist, Oswald Mosley.

The advent of David Cameron as Conservative leader is only the catalyst for the imminent demise of Charles Kennedy. Cameron is certainly not the source of the Liberal Democrats' deep seated concerns about their leadership, but he certainly highlights their doubts. To my knowledge many Lib Dems have been expressing their criticisms internally since the 2001 general election.

The problem with Charles is not a particular personal weakness or an antipathy to the kind of perpetual motion the leadership of a party requires, but rather a general awareness that he simply doesn't have what it takes to be seen as a statesman. The personal problems may well be real enough but if he had that indefinable quality of "presence" and "depth" they would be minor irritants, capable of solution on a day to day basis. Without essential leadership qualities they assume mammoth proportions. It is no use being convivial, warm, friendly, amusing and a nice guy; without gravitas these attributes are politically ineffectual.

The reference to the scale of electoral success under Kennedy's leadership is disingenuous. Objectively the arithmetic is clear: the highest number of third party MPs since 1923. One can well understand the use of this important statistic as a stop gap by Lib Dem MPs seeking to delay the inevitable demise of Charles Kennedy, whether by a fall or a push.

However, reliance on the 2005 election result hides two crucial judgements. First, last May's election result was obtained despite Kennedy, and was nowhere near as good as it should have been, faced with such the open goal left by disillusion with both major parties, and the gift of the Iraq issue on which the Lib Dems genuinely held the moral high ground but failed to build a public crusade. Second, there is a serious possibility that a revitalised Conservative party will be in a strong position to regain a substantial amount of the ground lost to the Lib Dems in recent elections, and that Charles Kennedy will appear lightweight in comparison to David Cameron.

The hollowness of the Lib Dem MPs' drumbeating over a Kennedy role in achieving last May's result and its 62 Lib Dem MPs, was highlighted on 31 August on this page by Skipton and Ripon's Conservative MP, David Curry, who made the perceptive comment that Charles Kennedy's failure to "force his way into the void" might make him the one person to have saved the Tories. Nothing since polling day has changed that judgement, and it is increasingly clear that Charles Kennedy cannot transform his image. <

The immense media pressures on party leaders, and the continual requirement for their parliamentary colleagues to declare undying fealty, ensure that Charles Kennedy will express his absolute determination to carry on, with full support, until the very moment of his demise. That may come very soon, but in any event I cannot see it continuing beyond next May's local elections. The seats won in 2002 are then up for grabs. The Liberal Democrats polled 25% of the national vote that year and won 497 seats on the metropolitan districts, including the six in Yorkshire. This figure is a hundred less than the party won in 2004 - the last time they were contested so that any net losses will be highly significant and certainly fatal to Charles Kennedy's leadership.

The lack of an obvious successor adds to the party's reluctance to wield the dagger. If elections were determined by performance on the radio, the obvious choice would be Sir Menzies Campbell whose ability to articulate perfect subordinate clauses is remarkable, and who certainly has political gravitas. Whether the inevitable contrast in television image with Gordon Brown and David Cameron is worth the risk of appearing as if from a past generation is worth taking is a tough question for the party.

Simon Hughes is clearly gearing up for another go at the leadership and will command substantial support but it is unlikely that he has done anything in the interim to win more votes than he obtained in 1999. Mark Oaten would be a divisive figure and, if the party is going to move to the right, it might well prefer David Laws, the key figure in the "Orange Book" compilation in September 2004.

The political field is wide open. Four years or so to the next election with, by then, three new leaders, suggests that there will be everything to play for. If that can't raise the general election turnout above its pitiful 60% then nothing will.

19 December 2005