The past week has been difficult, unpleasant and upsetting for Lib Dem members, activists and voters. Many people feel angry, and can’t understand how so many loyal MPs could publicly withdraw their support from Charles Kennedy at a time when he had admitted having a drink problem.
Before I was elected, there had been occasions when Charles’ performance raised concerns with colleagues, who tried to give support and urged him to seek help to sort out the drinking problem. As a new MP, it was not easy to work out what of these stories and rumours I heard were true, and I felt very frustrated with those briefing in the press against Charles.
Various well-documented incidents in November renewed the worries about Charles’ ability to fulfil his duties as leader, and things came to a head at the Shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary Party meetings on 13 & 14 December. Along with others, I expressed my continuing support for Charles, but also referred to the persistent rumours about what one colleague tactfully referred to as “lifestyle problems”. I said that I thought many MPs wanted to be reassured. This point was not addressed. Nonetheless, I hoped that the Christmas break would see an end to the media speculation and a fresh start to 2006.
From Wednesday 4 Jan, it became clear this was a vain hope. 11 Shadow Cabinet members wanted Charles to go, and other MPs were publicly calling for a confidence vote to put the issue to rest. I realised that in many ways it didn’t matter whether I wanted Charles to stay – if those working most closely with him felt so strongly about it, it was clear that his position was politically untenable. It’s easy to criticise and judge those MPs, but as the story has unfolded it has become clear that they had given support and time and again been told the problem would be dealt with – only for them to end up in very difficult positions themselves as the problem recurred.
When the announcement came that Charles would be making a statement on Thursday, I assumed it would be a resignation. If it had become clear to me, I figured the political reality must also be obvious to Charles’ advisers. His statement was brave and dignified. It did not restore the confidence that MPs had lost in Charles.
Calling Charles to tell him I thought he should go was incredibly difficult, but having reached that conclusion I had to tell him. Agreeing to put my name on the list saying I wouldn’t work with Charles was an agonising decision. I had believed over the holiday that the best option was for Charles to stay. When this option was no longer possible, then the next best thing was to resolve the issue quickly and with dignity. Knowing what I did, I was certain the alternative was days of painful media revelations, snippets of stories trickling out, and journalists picking away at Charles’ credibility until his inevitable resignation. That would have been much worse for Charles, and it would have been much worse for the party.
All of this fills me with sadness, and I wish it had been handled better. I feel it also shows the destructive nature of alcoholism – the turmoil the Lib Dems have experienced over recent weeks and months is similar to what many families experience. I hope that Charles can now have time and privacy to focus on his health, and that he will in future return to front line politics – with his talent and experience he still has much to contribute.
The party now must concentrate on the future. Bridges need to be built with Lib Dem members, activists and voters. A well-conducted, positive leadership campaign with a real choice for the members is a good place to start, and we will welcome our new leader at the spring conference. We need to get back to communicating our messages about the environment, civil liberties, public services, fairer taxes and better pensions. And I will continue to work hard for East Dunbartonshire, being an approachable MP, active in the local community.