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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 June 2006, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK
Kennedy speaks on visit to Devon

By Chris Rogers
BBC South West Political Editor

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy stood down in January
The former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy says he regrets not being able to fight the leadership election he called.

Mr Kennedy spoke to BBC South West's Political Editor Chris Rogers in Newton Abbot in Devon earlier this week.

Mr Kennedy said while he follows the convention of not commenting publicly on his successor, he does give advice in private to Sir Menzies Campbell.

Mr Kennedy was in the town to open the new Lib Dem constituency offices.

I don't think it was wrong to want to stand again
Charles Kennedy

It was an opportunity to reflect on the events of six months ago, when a volatile period of speculation about his leadership style and performance culminated in his announcement of a leadership election.

"I haven't written any memoirs, but looking back there was an assumption that maybe we should have a change of leader without having a leadership election," he said.

"In an area like the South West, with such a big membership and with one member, one vote, I think that would have been very demoralising.

"The penultimate decision I took as leader was to trigger a leadership election. I was very pleased when that happened because it gives legitimacy to the new leader and the election re-invigorated the party. "

However, that in turn generated even more aggravation in the party as MPs and activists alike came forward to either endorse his bid to stand again or demand he withdrew his name to allow a fresh start.

"I don't think it was wrong to want to stand again. That was my view at the time and was the view of the vast majority of messages I was getting."

But two South West MPs in particular said no.

One was Nick Harvey in north Devon, a senior campaigner who thought the view was untenable.

The other, St Ives MP Andrew George, threatened to resign his front bench post shadowing International Development unless Kennedy withdrew.

The pressure proved overwhelming.

"I've been in Parliament long enough to recognise Parliamentary reality, that if you don't feel you carry sufficient confidence with your Parliamentary colleagues, as I couldn't at that time, then you have to make way for others."

It was a crushing blow and remains his one regret.

"I would have liked to contest the leadership election, because there is now a question mark in the air which members could have decided, had my name been on the ballot paper."

Now he gives every impression of having come to terms with his new role, on the backbench but supportive of the party and particularly the new leader.

There's a modern Liberal Democrat convention of a departing leader offering full support and no comment on his successor, for fear of being misrepresented. But things are different in private.

Charles Kennedy, wife Sarah and baby Donald
The Kennedy's son was born last April

"Of course I do offer face-to-face advice to Ming. We've known each other for nearly thirty years and we speak as friends and colleagues as we have always done.

"It's a two-way process and nothing changes, but it's done in private."

He says he supports the review of party policies, especially taxation policy, not least because he started the process and the party can't stand still.

Earlier, looking relaxed on a blazing June day, Mr Kennedy had spent an hour at the new complex in Exeter which is the national headquarters of the Met Office.

He said he was on a fact-finding mission and brushed off the suggestion that he might be in line for a front bench environment job.

"I'm in the happy position of not being in search of titles, posts or positions. I've more or less done it all and there's not much left to go for.

Reasons to be cheerful

"I can do what interests me and I wanted to spend time at the Met Office seeing what they can input to the debate on climate change."

It's a luxury usually denied a leader on a treadmill of politically necessary public visits.

Many old hands sympathised with his personal battle with drink that kicked off his eventual fall from the top job. He can never forget, but he can progress.

He gives every impression of having re-discovered the really important things, his wife, a baby son and a proper perspective on politics.

"I was in good health when I resigned, I said I would remain in good health, and I am. I have every reason, personally and politically, to be cheerful and that's the way I'm going to keep it."

Timeline: Lib Dem election
02 Mar 06 |  UK Politics
The Charles Kennedy story
09 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
Tributes paid as Kennedy resigns
07 Jan 06 |  Scotland

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