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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 19:47 GMT
Kennedy gambles on drink confession
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News Website

Charles Kennedy
Confession a huge gamble
With his extraordinary and unprecedented confession, Charles Kennedy has dramatically called the bluff of those who have been campaigning to remove him from the Liberal Democrat leadership.

But by admitting to a current alcohol problem, Mr Kennedy has taken a huge gamble and the outcome must be far from certain.

For some, he has displayed great courage and deserves the support of his colleagues and party.

Others believe he has simply confirmed that his position is now untenable and that, one way or another, he will have to go.

The fact that he has a drink problem has come as no surprise to most in Westminster - an institution that has its fair share of alcohol casualties.

It has been a constant undercurrent throughout all the gossip about his leadership and, as he admitted, has sparked much of the concern over his position.

Mercy

It has been referred to numerous times during interviews with him and he has been forced to deny it on several occasions.

It was the unspoken allegation after his non-appearance at a Budget debate two years ago, his sweaty performance at a Lib Dem conference shortly afterwards and his stumbling performance at the start of the last General Election campaign.

It had remained an undercurrent. But it was not going to stay that way and it was probably the fact it was about to become public that spurred his admission.

Now, by calling for a leadership election he has, in effect, thrown himself on the mercy of his party's grassroots members.

He has tried to ensure it is they who should decide whether his personal drink problem, and the admission he has not been frank about it, is enough to bar him from continuing to hold down his job.

In doing so he would go over the heads of his own MPs, including the 11 frontbenchers who had previously signed - but failed to deliver - a letter demanding his resignation.

He must believe he will win the support of ordinary party members, and then hope the party at Westminster obey the mass membership's judgement.

Challengers?

But it is far from certain his tactic will work. Within minutes of his statement it was being suggested that senior party figures will attempt to persuade him to stand down now.

No matter how difficult and courageous his confession may have been, there are bound to be questions over whether he really can continue with the job, particularly as he admitted he only stopped drinking completely two months ago.

Whatever the outcome, Mr Kennedy's statement has raised some huge questions over privacy and to what extent a politician's personal problems impact on his position and ability to do his job

And, while there will be huge sympathy for Mr Kennedy from other politicians of all sides on a personal level, both Labour and the Tories will not mind seeing the Liberal Democrats plunging into a period of internal crisis.

The question however, is whether, having called their bluff, any of Mr Kennedy's critics will be prepared to stand against him if he does not stand down.

As Mr Kennedy has warned a number of times, forcing a contest would lead to a lengthy and potentially damaging battle within the party.

Potential leadership candidates such as Sir Menzies Campbell and Mark Oaten have already announced they will not stand but support Mr Kennedy.

Whatever the outcome, Mr Kennedy's statement has raised some huge questions over privacy and to what extent a politician's personal problems impact on his position and ability to do his job.

The shockwaves from this statement will spread much further than just the Liberal Democrat party.





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