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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 14:20 GMT
Anti-Kennedy briefings 'cowardly'
Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy will guide the party into the next election, his office says.
Senior Liberal Democrats have rallied behind party leader Charles Kennedy and urged critics to stop "cowardly" briefings against him.

Frontbencher Lembit Opik said critics should have the courage to talk to Mr Kennedy. Ex-Liberal leader Lord Steel said they should "put up or shut up".

Mr Kennedy told the Lib Dem "shadow cabinet" on Tuesday that reports he planned to stand down were wrong.

Some unnamed senior MPs privately say he must improve or stand aside.

Concerns about Mr Kennedy's performance were voiced at a meeting of the Lib Dem shadow cabinet on Tuesday, but nobody asked him to resign.

'Intentions unclear'

Mr Opik said senior members at the "shadow cabinet" meeting had indicated they would rather give indirect "feedback" on Mr Kennedy, despite the leader's call for them to talk to him directly.

Why go through the press and brief in what I think is a slightly cowardly way, rather than going directly to the boss and having a conversation with him and moving it forward?
Lembit Opik

He told BBC News 24: "What I saw yesterday was people who were really beating about the bush. I wasn't really clear what exactly their intentions were.

"What is questionable here is why go through the press and brief in what I think is a slightly cowardly way, rather than going directly to the boss and having a conversation with him and moving it forward?"

Mr Opik argued that Mr Kennedy had secured the best result for the party since the 1920s at May's general election, by winning 62 seats.

"I would say if the boss delivers the best result in 82 years, you keep them on," he added.

Over by Christmas?

Lord Steel said Mr Kennedy had made it clear at a meeting of Lib Dem peers that he would fight on if a leadership election was triggered.

Treasury spokesman Chris Huhne admitted the party was assessing its post-election performance.

"I think we do need to raise our game. I think the environment is a choppier one than it has been up until now," he said.

But the new MP added: "Charles has been through this before and I am sure he will see them off again."

One unnamed senior party source told BBC Radio 4's World At One that Mr Kennedy's leadership was "holed below the waterline".

'On probation'

The source argued it would be better to resolve the issue before Christmas, rather than leaving him badly damaged but in place.

At prime minister's questions, Conservative leader David Cameron taunted Mr Kennedy and what he called the Lib Dems' "decapitation strategy" - a reference to the party's failed attempt to unseat senior Tories at the general election.

Labour and Conservative MPs jeered Mr Kennedy with shouts of "bye, bye Charlie".

Mr Kennedy was re-elected unopposed as party leader in June, after the general election, but faced speculation about his leadership at the autumn party conference.

Allies and critics agreed after Tuesday's meeting that Mr Kennedy was now "on probation".


However, his spokeswoman said: "Charles Kennedy made it clear to the shadow cabinet that he has no intention of standing down as leader as has been wrongly reported in the media and that we will continue to lead the Liberal Democrats into and beyond the next election."

She said that message would be repeated when he meets the party's MPs later on Wednesday.

Lib Dem leaders can be deposed if a no confidence motion is approved by a majority of the party's MPs. Candidates in a leadership election have to have the support of at least seven MPs.

Potential alternatives to Mr Kennedy, 46, could be party president Simon Hughes, 54, or foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell, 64.

Mr Kennedy and his officials were furious over reports that he planned to stand down next March - something they branded "total and absolute nonsense".

They complained to the BBC when broadcaster Andrew Neil said on the This Week programme that he "had it on good authority" that this was Mr Kennedy's plan.

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