Perhaps the least surprising revelation in the whole Lib Dem leadership debacle is that Charles Kennedy ha been receiving treatment for a drink problem, not simply because its been pretty much the worst kept secret in politics for the last two or three years but because the mere fact of being leader of the Lib Dems seems more than sufficient, in my estimation, to drive anyone to drink.
There’s been a crushing inevitability about recent events which, if we’re honest, has little or nothing to do with Chatshow’s personal life.
As has become increasingly apparent, the Lib Dems ‘best electoral performance’ in years has turned out to be simply another false dawn built on the Lib Dems being the least worst alternative for former Labour supporters pissed off with Blair’s uber authoritarianism and propensity for telling porkies over Iraq. All they realistically achieved last May was to carry over the kind of protest vote they tend to pick-up in mid-term into the actual General Election but not in sufficient numbers to put a big enough dent in the Tories to cast doubts on their position as the main opposition party.
The main political charge against Kennedy is that he’s failed to capitalise on their electoral success last May, but what did he realistically have to capitalise on? Nine months on can anyone remember what any of the Lib Dem’s manifesto policies were other than the 50% top rate on tax and local income tax – a policy so unformed and sketchy that even Kennedy couldn’t explain how it was going to work – both of which have been unceremoniously ditched since then.
I don’t think it can be said that Kennedy’s ‘dropped the ball’; I don’t think he ever had it in the first place – or if he did it was taken off him near enough straight after the election by the Tory leadership contest.
It is ever the fate of the leader of the number two opposition party to be the spare wheel in our current Parliamentary system. Even the one set-piece occasion where he could put himself and his party over, PMQ’s, is loaded against him; the entire set-up is built on the main gladitorial contest between the PM and leader of the opposition which gets the lion’s share of the attention, especially in the media. By comparison, Kennedy’s role is that of a support act to the main performance, in boxing terms he’s the ‘nobbins’ fight held over by the promoter until after the main event as cover against the title fight turning out to be a damp squib.
It’s a role that requires a towering performance just to get noticed, the kind of performance that’s not only beyond Kennedy but beyond pretty much anyone else the Lib Dems could put up at the moment, except perhaps for Ming the Merciless – although I can’t say I’ve noticed him up to much of late either. Kennedy may not have shone since the election, but neither has anyone else in his party – if there’s blame to apportioned for not making a breakthough on the back of election success that blame should be shared collectively by the entire Lib-Dem ‘front bench’, none of whom could be said to have been any more effective than their leader.
Of course what’s actually precipitated this crisis is not merely doubts over Kennedy’s performance as leader, nor even his now admitted drink problem, but the emergence of David Cameron as the new Tory leader which has seen the Tories dive headlong for the centre ground and, rightly if one is thinking purely in terms of political strategy, put the immediate squeeze on Lib Dem support.
What Cameron has correctly realised is that the key to the next General Election lies in pulling in those voters who habitually vacillate between parties in the centre ground of British politics, the same ‘disillusioned with Blair’ vote that delivered the Lib Dems their best election performance in many years has become the vote the Tories need to attract in order to unseat Labour much as they were the vote Labour targetted in 1997 in order to get rid of the Tories. What differs between Cameron’s approach today and that of Blair in the mid 90’s in the naked aggression with which he has, already, pursued this course. Labour, of course, put the squeeze on Lib Dem territory but did so in a less threatening manner by offering the odd olive branch to the Lib-Dem leadership and Lib-Dem supporters – Blair hedged his bets on victory in 97 by offering co-operation, may be even coalition with the Lib Dems, amything so long as the desired result, the end of 18 years of Tory rule, could be achieved.
Cameron’s approach is rather different, indeed it perhaps the one clear difference in strategy he has to distinguish himself for Blair. Where Labour cosseted and seduced the Lib Dems with gentle diplomacy, Cameron has gone straight for the gunboat approach, set out to annex the electoral equivalent of the ‘Sudetenland’ and push his forces right up onto the Lib Dem borders. Blair’s message was ‘work with us, it will be to your advantage’, even if no real advantage materialised as the scale of Labour’s 1997 victory turned the Lib Dems into an unecessary and expendable appendage. Cameron’s message is ‘work with us or else’, having rightly calculated that the presence of both main parties solidly decamped in the centre ground spells if not oblivion for the Lib Dems then the next nearest thing to oblivion.
And so the knives come out for Kennedy and all he can do is confess his sins, cry ‘Et tu Daisy‘ and call a leadership contest.
Which proves there’s still a fair bit of fight left in him.
The perception, in the media at least, seems to be that Kennedy has decided to throw himself on the tender mercies of the party membership while banking on the fact that his main opponents may be unwilling to be seen to be kicking him while he’s down and will stay out of the race – but there is more to it than than. What Kennedy is banking on is not that his public admission that he has a drink problem will work for him but that every competent politician knows all to well the fate of Brutus and Sejanus and that politics is never kind to the assassin (or would-be assassin) – that’s what has the likes of Ming the Merciless and Mark Oaten shuffling uncomfortably from foot to foot and ruling out the possibility of a challenge from their direction. The first rule of assassination is always dispose of the assassin one the deed is done so that no one may see who’s hand really directed the knife.
In all this I wonder if Kennedy really does have the will to go on as leader of the Lib Dems, even if cowardice dictates that he receives no serious or credible challenger in the upcoming leadership contest. Is this contest really a bid to stay on in the top job, or merely the means to extract a little revenge on his opponents by either exposing them for the cowards they are – already achieved in the case of Ming and Oaten – or by blighting their future career with the epithet of ‘assassin’.
Who knows, but tragic circumstances – and this is a tragedy for the Lib Dems and their electoral credibility – call for tragic words and so one much inevitably turn to the venerable Bard of Avon.
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
A thought which must occupy the mind of more than one Lib Dem politician at the moment.