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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 10 August, 1999, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Charles Kennedy: Why try harder?
Charles Kennedy: The new Lib Dem leader was the youngest MP
When Paddy Ashdown first announced his intention to stand down as Liberal Democrat leader, everybody knew immediately his replacement would be Charles Kennedy.

Admittedly, that was mainly because he was the only Lib Dem MP most people could name.

Among the 90,000 party members entitled to vote and onlookers alike, Mr Kennedy instantly emerged as the only candidate with an inkling of glamour, thanks to his light-hearted humour displayed on various TV outings.

Despite this, Mr Kennedy's early career got underway with utter seriousness. He became Britain's youngest MP aged just 23, just a year after winning a Fulbright scholarship to Indiana University in 1982.

His biography on his own website goes on to boast of the lead he has taken in sensible but dull organisations such as the European Movement and the electoral reform group Make Votes Count. He himself says: "I believe in being serious about politics, though not in taking myself too seriously."

But Mr Kennedy's often-noted love of a drink and his reputation as a joker appeared to have held back his political career in recent years. Under Mr Ashdown, he had been put out to graze in the lowly post of rural affairs spokesman.

Such under-achievement after a flying start hinted at rumours that Mr Kennedy's relaxed style and lax time-keeping in reality proved he was simply lazy.

He has been dubbed "inaction man" - a comparison with Mr Ashdown, who brought his former marine training to his political career - and his main challenger, Simon Hughes, seized on this, with the health spokesman describing himself as the more energetic of the pair.

It was further suggested Mr Kennedy failed to take politics seriously in 1994 when he won 2,000 from a 50 flutter waging that the Lib Dems would take only two seats in the European elections.

Mr Kennedy calls himself as an "up-front social drinker" and refuses to be fussed by the criticism. He confesses to being totally unsporty, but has claimed for some time to be trying to quit smoking.

Charles Kennedy is stepping ahead of Paddy Ashdown
He equally appears not to be distracted by attention focused on his engagement to Sarah Gurling, a Lib Dem councillor turned adviser to lottery operator Camelot and 10 years his junior.

When asked about his marital intentions, he tends to reply, romantically: "I've got no plans for a wedding in my in-tray."

On politics, he is a committed Europhile and has spoken about using the Lib Dems to reach out to those on the left and right who support the UK adopting the single currency.

During the leadership campaign, he stressed his commitment to social justice, accusing the Labour government of failing to put money into its vision of greater fairness.

He has also recently come clean on the key question in the leadership contest: he said he would not accept a seat in the Blair Cabinet, if it was offered.

But in 1988, he voiced something close to the Blairite vision, saying: "It remains my conviction that breakthrough will come only by harnessing the sufficiently like-minded personnel of the centre-left into a single mass party of conscience and reform."

Having achieved the pinnacle of a Lib Dem's ambition, the question for Mr Kennedy is, what next? He describes himself now as "ambitious, but not in the way I would have been 20 years ago".

His father, Ian, a crofter who still lives at the Kennedy's family home near Inverness, says his son's attitude at school was: "Do enough to get by without knocking your pan in."

Having opted for the charming bon viveur in favour of his sober, policy-minded but charisma-less opponents, Liberal Democrats will be hoping he has grown out of this approach.

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