Final toast for Kennedy

Chutzpah has a new meaning. "Yes, I have a drink problem," says Charles Kennedy, "Yes, I've had treatment; and yes, I've kept it secret. And, oh, by the way, you, the Lib Dem party members can decide whether I should continue as leader. Sorry, no questions from the press." What astonishing cheek. In today's politics you cannot treat the media in such a cavalier fashion. Every day the same questions will be put and no Lib Dem occasion will be complete without the ritual questions about the party leader.

I've been on the inside of impossible political scenarios often enough to know what goes on behind the scenes. Just as any afficionado of "The West Wing" sees vividly how the party machine trundles into action in a crisis, with the party apparatchiks throwing around all possible responses before deciding on the least worst. Then someone writes the script and the leader delivers it. The only problem with the Kennedy situation is that there is no sustainable script. Given that there is no answer, it is no wonder he had difficulty finding it.

For the past week it has looked for all the world as if the Lib Dem parliamentary party has had a rota of members ready to be delivered, pristine pure, to the BBC "Today" programme studio. Even if it hasn't been orchestrated, someone should take credit for a brilliant performance.

Why does he perversely stick it out? It cannot be that he believes he can carry on to the next election in 2009 or 2010. It can only be that the party managers have not yet determined the successor. Sir Menzies Campbell? Intellectually brilliant. Politically sound. Wonderful on radio, but looks ancient compared to David Cameron. Simon Hughes? The inheritor of the mainstream Liberal tradition, but potentially divisive with former social democrats. Mark Oaten? Unsound on civil rights issues and not a persuasive parliamentary performer. David Laws? Too far distant on the economic liberal wing. The other 57 Heinz varieties? Who knows - and therein lies the Lib Dems problem.

Certainly, politics is now far too much an image dominated stage and we desperately need to get away from spin and on to substance, but, alas for the Lib Dems, the rules of the current game are set in stone. No use arguing for intellectual substance - not that Charles Kennedy has shown a superfluity of that either - when the order of the day is for a leader that can punch above the party's weight and can dominate every media opportunity.

One could complain bitterly about David Owen's political programme, as I often did, but no-one could take away from him his ability to impose his presence on the political scene in the 1980s, despite having only a handful of MPs. Similarly, in a different era, Jo Grimond had a personal rapport with the public that belied the fact that he had only a tiny group of five Liberal MPs alongside him on the parliamentary bench.

Paradoxically, Charles Kennedy is in the opposite situation: unable to forge a charismatic link with the public, but having sixty-one Lib Dem MPs filling the benches behind him.

The alcohol problem simply adds another burden. Kennedy is far from the first party leader with a predilection for a drink. Asquith's nickname was "squiffy" and he was the undisputed leader of the Liberal Party until Lloyd George and the Northcliffe press ousted him when illiberal policies were required to prosecute the first world war. Even in 1918 the party still doted on Asquith as its leader. For Kennedy, alcohol is only the easy means of frogmarching him towards the exit.

The tactic of putting himself up for re-election as leader is miserable in the extreme. John Major tried it and it provided only temporary relief. What it does is to face prospective candidates with an intolerable decision between loyalty to the leader or loyalty to the party. They know Kennedy is doomed but they do not wish to be seen as the wielder of dagger, for evermore to be denounced as the man or woman who forced out the party leader. There will be enough residual Kennedy supporters to deny such an individual the eventual crown. Just as there were Thatcher loyalists to deny the succession to Michael Heseltine.

My view is that this has story has a long way still to run. Personally, I doubt that Kennedy will be a candidate at the now promised leadership election. Even if he were to stand and be elected it would be a pyrrhic victory and unsustainable. Margaret Thatcher discovered that even a relatively substantial lead on the first ballot was insufficient to sustain her authority. Even when she doggedly she pursued her candidature, Kenneth Clarke and other Cabinet members told her the uncomfortable truth that her reign was over. The same is true of Charles Kennedy.

The reality for the Lib Dems is that they may have to write off next May's local elections. The next general election is far enough away for a new leader to embed himself or herself in the public mind, but to hang on to Kennedy for the sake of the local elections would be an immense tactical error.

The sad truth behind all these shenanigans is that there is a desperate need for a third party, based firmly on those anti Iraq war and pro civil liberties principles that the Lib Dems rightly espoused before the last election. They will go by default until the Lib Dems sort out their internal disarray. The party needs to be rescued immediately, and Charles Kennedy cannot do it.

5 January 2006