Page last updated at 22:39 GMT, Saturday, 21 January 2006

Turbulent few days for Lib Dems

By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

In the space of just a fortnight, the Liberal Democrat party has lost its leader due to drink and been pitched into a sex scandal.

Mark Oaten and wife Belinda
Mark Oaten with his wife Belinda

The two events may be wholly unrelated, but they are bound to have a significant impact on the party as it attempts to hold on to its historically strong Commons standing and see off the latest assaults from a renewed Tory party.

The removal of former leader Charles Kennedy, with his confession of a drink problem, appears to have already damaged the party.

Not primarily, it seems, because of Mr Kennedy's troubles, but more because of the way his colleagues brought him down.

Rent boy claims

Although there are plenty who believe the previously persistent denials from Mr Kennedy and his aides over many months have tarnished the Lib Dems' claims of honesty and straightforwardness.

Now its home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten - who only stood down as a leadership candidate days ago - has quit the frontbench over newspaper allegations about an affair with a rent boy.

Parties routinely ask their candidates if they have anything in their personal lives that might later emerge that could damage them or the party
Nick Assinder

So, inevitably, the taint of sleaze, which did so much damage to John Major's Tories in the late 1990s, has now been added to the party's woes.

The first surprise is that Mr Oaten appears to have believed he could enter the race to replace Mr Kennedy without his private life immediately coming under the most intense scrutiny.

Next, it is astonishing that any politician allows himself to get into such a position at all.

Like it or not, such personal scrutiny is a routine part of the rough, no-holds-barred political and media circus.

Distraction

So investigations, allegations and revelations are inevitable and all politicians and aspiring politicians must, surely, be well aware of that.

Indeed the parties routinely ask their candidates if they have anything in their personal lives that might later emerge that could damage them or the party.

This is all bound to impact on the Lib Dems and their leadership race, even if only because of the distraction it will be from the big policy issues the candidates want to put top of the agenda.

Just how it will all play in the ballot box in the looming May local elections or what long-term effect it will have on the party's image remains to be seen.



SEE ALSO
Oaten resigns over rent boy claim
21 Jan 06 |  Special Reports
Profile: Mark Oaten
21 Jan 06 |  UK Politics

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