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Inside Westminster: Is it “Ciao” for Charlie?

By London_Nick Last edited 137 months ago
Inside Westminster: Is it “Ciao” for Charlie?
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You may have heard the rumours that Charles Kennedy is facing a coup d’etat within the Liberal Democrat party. Well, these rumours certainly got louder today. Lembit Öpik, the Lib Dems’ Wales and Northern Ireland spokesman, spoke to the press today denouncing those in the party who are plotting behind the scenes to unseat Kennedy as ‘cowardly.’

“What is questionable here is why go through the press and brief in what I think is a slightly cowardly way, rather than going directly to the boss and having a conversation with him and moving it forward?” said Mr Öpik. The fact that it was Mr. Öpik saying this seems odd, as the Members’ Tea Room gossip today insinuates that he is in fact one of the ‘cowardly’ splitters within the party that he criticises. A guilty conscience perhaps? Elsewhere in the Commons, all 62 Lib Dem M.P.s are skulking around in the shadows, keeping their heads down, for fear of making a gaffe that will induce the wrath of their party leadership.

Whilst Charlie himself dismissed the rumours as “nonsense” yesterday, more fuel was poured on the fire at Prime Minister’s questions today. As soon as the Speaker called Kennedy to speak, the chamber erupted into taunts of “Bye bye Charlie!” As a Conservative backbencher later commented – “The louder the cheers, the worse the trouble” – well, if that is the case, Mr. Kennedy is in a LOT of trouble.

As Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy has given his party their best election result since the 1920s, with 62 parliamentary seats. He has been a major player in the dawning of the age of three-party politics in the UK, and the support of the Lib Dems will be essential to the now weakened Labour government against the new, fresh-faced Tories. However, Kennedy, whilst seen as the most honest party leader by many, is also seen as a weak leader. His laid-back style of leading his party is often perceived as a lack of strength of character, and it is generally felt that he is not Prime Minister material. However, he is certainly adept at the essential leadership qualities of organisation and campaigning, as the strong result in May shows.

‘Leadership season’ has been blamed for the problems within the Lib Dems. The recent change of leader in the Conservative Party, and the ongoing Blair/Brown speculation, lead many people to believe that it is time for a change in the Lib Dem leadership too. Kennedy was re-elected unopposed as party leader in June, but this is the third time in the past six months that he has had to tell his own front bench to ‘put up or shut up.’

Who would succeed Kennedy is the question on everyone’s lips here. Simon Hughes, the Party President, is one candidate, but his recent parliamentary appearances have been disappointing at best. Foreign Affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell is another candidate, but at the age of 64, and having just recovered from cancer, he would be unable to stay as leader for long.

It is believed that Kennedy has seen off this mutiny, but is now ‘on probation.’ As a result, he has appointed a new speechwriter, Mickey Finn, to give his words a bit more punch. His efforts were not without sacrifice. The Scotsman is famous for enjoying a tipple, but has pledged to give up alcohol this festive season, and in fact was spotted drinking Diet Coke, rather than wine, at Gran Paradiso restaurant in Victoria with close friend and former Liberal leader, Lord David Steel. However, he hasn’t given up the fags, chuffing through a whole pack between courses. Don’t worry Charles, Londonist understands. After all, you need all the stress relief you can get at the moment.

Last Updated 14 December 2005