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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 January 2006, 10:07 GMT
Profile: Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy's leadership style has been described as 'laid-back'

He may, finally, have been forced to quit by his own MPs, but Charles Kennedy can at least console himself with the thought that he has been the most successful Liberal Democrat leader of modern times.

Under Mr Kennedy's guidance the perennial also-rans of British politics started to look like real contenders - even if his talk of "genuine three party politics" may have sounded a bit like wishful thinking at times.

When Mr Kennedy took over in 1999 the party was on a high, having achieved a breakthrough at the 1997 general election under previous leader Paddy Ashdown, electing 46 MPs.

Mr Kennedy was able to build on that success, making impressive gains in local government and gaining the party a real taste of power in Scotland, where they govern in coalition with Labour.

At last year's general election, the party saw 62 MPs elected - its highest tally since the 1920s.

Laid-back

And he did it the hard way - abandoning his predecessor Lord Ashdown's dream of a permanent alliance with Labour, in favour of steady incremental progress at the ballot box.

With heavily-pregnant wife Sarah
Mr Kennedy married Sarah Gurling in 2002
His down-to-earth, blokeish image honed by appearances on television programmes such as Have I Got News For You, arguably helped the Lib Dems appeal to voters turned off by traditional Westminster politics.

He took pride in being described in newspaper profiles as a "fully paid-up member of the human race".

But this approach also gave ammunition to Mr Kennedy's critics.

When they elected Mr Kennedy, the Lib Dems knew they had chosen a "bon viveur" over rivals with more gravitas but less charisma.

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

And at the start of his leadership Mr Kennedy was dubbed "inaction man" compared to his ex-Marine predecessor Lord Ashdown.

In a Westminster village that thrives on drama and confrontation, his laid-back, consensual style was sometimes been interpreted as laziness.

His father Ian once said his son's attitude at school was: "Do enough to get by without knocking your pan in."

And Mr Kennedy's dramatic admission - after years of denials - that he has been treated for a drink problem, only confirmed the worst fears of his detractors.

Early start

Mr Kennedy was born in Inverness and educated at Lochaber High School and Glasgow University.

Apart from a brief time as a journalist with BBC Highland, he has been an MP since the tender of age 23.

The young Kennedy had taken a break from his postgraduate studies at Indiana University in the United States in 1983 to contest the Ross, Cromarty & Skye seat, the UK's largest constituency, which he did not think he had a chance of winning. He even flew back to the US as the polls closed.

But standing for the SDP led by Roy Jenkins and the Gang of Four, he unseated government minister Hamish Gray and - despite his youth and lack of political experience - was being tipped for the top almost from the moment he entered the Commons.

At first he was SDP spokesman on social security, Scotland and health and when most of his party merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems in 1988, he continued to hold a series of frontbench posts, while building his profile with regular television appearances, leading some to dub him "Chatshow Charlie".

He beat five candidates, including current party president Simon Hughes, to the leadership in 1999 and set about uncoupling it - at a national level - from Labour.

Soul-searching

At a time when the gap between the two main parties is narrowing, Mr Kennedy has been able to develop a set of policies - on Europe, civil liberties, the environment, tax and the Iraq war - that set it apart.

Kennedy on Have I Got News for You
Mr Kennedy has appeared on the BBC's Have I Got News for You

The 2001 election saw the party increase its share of the vote to 18.1% and have 52 MPs elected.

In 2003, Mr Kennedy took the decision - after much soul-searching - to oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq.

He spoke at an anti-war rally in London's Hyde Park, but backed British troops once the invasion was under way - a move which led to criticism from some peace activists.

By now Mr Kennedy was a married man, and he became a father for the first time during the 2005 election campaign, when his wife Sarah Gurling gave him a baby son, Donald James.

Ill-health

He blamed the resulting lack of sleep for a stuttering performance during press conference questions on tax.

But rumours about the 46-year-old's health and lifestyle proved harder to shrug-off, despite him vowing publicly to take more exercise, drink less alcohol and stop smoking.

He appeared ill during his speech at the Lib Dems' spring conference last year but this was put down to a stomach bug. He also missed Gordon Brown's Budget speech due to "a bout of ill health".

Following his confession that he had a drink problem it was reported that four top party figures cornered Mr Kennedy in his private office in 2004 and insisted he acknowledged his drink problem.

According to ITV News, they succeeded in persuading him to admit his condition and he has since been receiving "private" medical help.

Many of his frontbench colleagues expected him to step down after the 2005 election - his refusal to do so prompting a whispering campaign that would eventually lead to his downfall.

Mr Kennedy fought the 2005 general election as the "Real Alternative" to Labour, claiming his party was poised to overtake the Conservatives as the main party of opposition, as a prelude to a lunge for Number 10.

Its most eye-catching policy - apart from its continued opposition to the Iraq war - was a local income tax and a 50p tax rate for people earning more than 100,000 a year (the latter policy has since been dropped).

It also wanted to drop student tuition fees and give free long-term personal care to the elderly, a policy it had pioneered in Scotland.

Future

But the party drew charges of opportunism by targeting Conservative voters in Tory areas and Labour voters in Labour areas. Its much-vaunted "decapitation strategy" - aimed at unseating a string of high profile Conservatives - also failed to come off.

And despite gaining a record number of seats, Mr Kennedy's critics began to complain that it could - and should - have done better.

Mr Kennedy launched a debate about the future of the party at its annual conference in Blackpool - but the event was overshadowed by whispering about his leadership.

That whispering has escalated in recent weeks, with senior party figures breaking ranks to call for his removal.

He might have survived if ITV News had not confronted him with evidence of his drink problem, which had been handed to them by senior Lib Dems.

Mr Kennedy's subsequent dramatic admission of a battle with alcohol was the final throw of the dice - an appeal over the heads of his MPs to the party membership.

But his MPs could take no more and more than half of them said they would no longer work with him if he was re-elected as leader, leaving him little choice but to resign.





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