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Commentary 306 – November 2005
27 October 2005 (10:14:28)

TROUBLE AT THE TOP

Readers sometimes ask why Liberator has not called on Charles Kennedy to resign, and it is a question usually asked in a tone of exasperation over what Kennedy has failed to do rather than anger at what he has done.

The general election result might have been thought good enough to quell mutterings about the leadership.

But these reignited at Blackpool, in large part due to Kennedy’s peculiar decision to agree with the assessment of former aide Richard Grayson that he was more a chairman than a leader.

Questions about Kennedy’s ability to do the job and enthusiasm for it formed a grumbling undercurrent to the entire proceedings at conference.

Simon Hughes felt moved to tell the media that he had assured Kennedy last summer that he would not stand against him for the leadership in the formal post-general election ballot.

Kennedy then felt moved to tell the media that he could not recall Hughes having said any such thing.

It all began to sound horribly reminiscent of the last days of Iain Duncan Smith in the same conference hall two years earlier.

Kennedy does not have a problem in the sense of credible successors breathing down his neck. An early leadership election would benefit only Hughes or Mark Oaten, since other potential contenders need time to establish themselves.

That duel would be welcomed only by diehard supporters of one or the other of these MPs, and most of the rest of the party would, rather than entertain such a contest, keep Kennedy in place even if he removed himself full time to a highland pub.

The problem is the old one. Kennedy was a sort of heir apparent who gathered the support in 1999 of people who lacked confidence in the other candidates. It was clear that Kennedy wanted to be leader, but not why.

Since then, there have been some successes – the burial of Lib-Labbery, the sound liberal response to the Labour government’s assaults on freedom and the (if slightly belated) opposition to the Iraq war.

But those minuses keep coming back. Periods of silence, a lack of communication with other MPs, a lack of obvious direction and strategy, and the sense that more should have been made of the collapse of public trust in the prime minister.

Kennedy inserted a passage into his Blackpool speech that was not in the copy distributed earlier to the media.

In it, he referred to leadership being a matter of “knowing when is the right time to listen as well… four months after a general election is a time for a leader to listen to you and then come back with the correct course and [then] move forward in unity”.

That is an admirable approach and, if Kennedy’s self-description of ‘chairman’ applied only to his conduct during such a process, no-one would object. His problem is not whether he knows when to switch from listening to action mode but whether he will switch from listening to masterly inactivity.

Kennedy does not scare any part of the party through his activities, which may still be a relief after the later Ashdown era, but his inactivity is starting to scare people who want to hold or gain seats.

The luck of having no obvious successor waiting in the wings will not last forever.

AN EASY ANSWER

After a gap of several years, our old friend the hung parliament has reappeared as a topic of media speculation. Since no sane person imagined that either of the last two general elections would result in a hung parliament, the subject did not then arise. After the 2005 result, it is back.

Although holding the balance of power sounds like a desirable situation for the Liberal Democrats, it is by no means easy, as most council groups that have been in this position will testify.

The crucial factor is that, to be able to exploit it, the party that holds the balance has to have more than one realistic option.

However, so seductive is the lure of the balance of power that the Alliance spent the 1980s testing to destruction the idea that the public could be persuaded to vote for a hung parliament.

It cannot. It dislikes the idea. Hung parliaments arise by chance.

If chance were to create one in 2009, it would clearly be difficult for the Liberal Democrats to reinstate a Labour government that had just been beaten, but it would be equally difficult to install the repository of hatred, selfishness and authoritarianism that is the Conservative party.

Since coalitions are supposed to be formed between parties of like mind, the solution is obvious.

In the event of a hung parliament, there should be a Labour/Conservative grand coalition – since the differences between them are pretty trivial.

The Liberal Democrats, whose differences with both of them are massive, could only profit from becoming the official opposition to such a government.

Liberator offers this ‘German’ scenario to the party leadership as a way of shutting down this tedious speculation by repeating this idea whenever the subject is raised.

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