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Monday, August 28, 2006

The long hard road back

The big topic on Liberal Democrat blogs over the weekend has been Charles Kennedy, his speech to Conference and the biography of our former leader by Greg Hurst, which is to be published in time for Conference.

The book seeks to pin down who in the Parliamentary Party was to blame for wielding the knife against Kennedy and for forcing him out. In reality it appears to just recycle old rumours, many of them published at the time. Like everybody else I will no doubt buy the book out of curiosity but all of us have moved on, including I believe, Charles Kennedy.

Both Rob Fenwick and Jonathan Calder take the view that having Kennedy address Conference is a mistake. Rob says that the event 'invites a direct comparison between him and Campbell, dramatically upping the odds for Ming, and re-opening old wounds for MPs and activists alike.' Stephen Tall takes the view that journalists have already written their coverage of Conference and that they will run with their view irrespective of whether it reflects actual events. He quite accurately concludes that most representatives will have other things on their mind, such as policy debates for example.

In yesterday's Observer Charles Kennedy is reported to have set out the likely timetable for his return to the centre-stage of politics. This includes 'a major speech on domestic and foreign affairs at next month's Liberal Democrat conference, followed by an end to his self-imposed silence in Commons debates and a possible front-bench role by late next year.'

Many people might consider this to be a threat to Ming's leadership. Others may think that it will distract us from the progress that he has made as leader of the party so far and prevent him using Conference to consolidate his position. I disagree.

The return of Charles Kennedy to a front bench role has the potential to close what fissures there remain following his departure and the subsequent leadership contest. An expression of unconditional support for Ming in Kennedy's speech, followed by an offer to Kennedy of a major high profile job could send a message of unity to the outside world which would put one of Britain's most popular and talented politicians back centre stage, whilst enabling us to get our message across to a bigger audience.

Events have moved on since I wrote on 27 July that it was time for Ming to shape up. A number of people put my comments down to jitters over poll ratings. That was never it. My concerns then were based on style of leadership, Ming's performance both in the House of Commons and elsewhere and concern about the philosophical direction of the party, centred in particular on the Tax Commission.

As I explained in this post on August 13th I am much happier with our tax proposals now that I have seen all the details and, equally importantly, we have a convincing narrative to sell them to the electorate. The proposals will lift two million people out of tax, whilst tackling climate change by taxing pollution. They will make our tax system both fairer and greener.

My view of Ming is beginning to evolve as well. As Toby Philpott implies in this post Ming has started to play to his strengths on foreign affairs and is leading the Liberal Democrats into clear and principled positions on Iraq and Lebanon. Toby believes that this had a significant influence on the forty seven Labour Party members in Derby South who recently defected to us from Labour.

He may well be right, though whether he is or not is immaterial. People are starting to appreciate Ming's strengths, which are at last showing through, and because of that he is able to get his voice heard on other issues as well. This has been reflected in recent polls but, as I argued earlier this is not the main indicator here. My sense is that the tone of debate has swung in our favour and that people are prepared to give Ming a chance to prove himself. Next month's Conference is the opportunity to do that.

A good Conference performance by Ming is still a prerequisite, and I am confident that he has it in him. However, there are opportunities to build on that still further and a genuine and public rapprochment with Kennedy is the key. In saying this I am not implying that the two are at war, indeed I believe that they are on good terms, but that there is a chance for both men to put to rest any remaining public perceptions of division by co-ordinating their speeches and by Ming bringing Kennedy back to the front bench.

There are of course many other scenarios but the key is strong policies, good tactical positioning, courage, an adherence to principle and honesty of opinion and if we stick to that combination then the Liberal Democrats should be able to build on their present position. I cannot help feeling though that the return of Charles Kennedy to frontline politics is a good thing and can only enhance that growth.

Update: Having read through the article in The Times this morning I stand by everything that I have written above. Greg Hurst's book is history, we have all moved on, including Kennedy, who has publicly admitted his illness and is receiving treatment for it. I have no doubt that Charles is more than capable of taking on a front bench job in the same way as other recovering alcoholics have gone on to do jobs that carry great responsibility.

The Times, and others, may hope that this serialisation will do the Liberal Democrats some damage but despite the fact that his alcoholism has been public knowledge for some considerable time, opinion polls show that Kennedy is as popular as ever. It is also the case that despite his illness Kennedy showed better judgement on issues such as Iraq than either the Prime Minister or most of the Conservative Party.
Why shouldn't Charles speak at conference if he has a contribution to make? He has paid his subs and is accredited, I presume.

The only proviso is that he should not grandstand, or give the appearance of pitching for a front-bench position again.

- Frank Little
No reason at all. In fact my view is that he should speak!
Peter, I share your view. It is about time that the Kennedy sarga is laid to rest and everyone moves on.
I do believe that Ming is getting better and has found his feet as he is quite obviously playing to his strengths.
Kennedy, i believe should both speak at conference and be brought back into the fold, that includes the lib dem cabinet. With a strong team of front bench lib dem MP's that includes Kennedy, this can only do good for our profile and for the party as a whole.
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