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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 January 2006, 16:22 GMT
Analysis: Kennedy quits
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News Website

Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy: Leader since 1999
As political assassinations go, Charles Kennedy's was the most public and in many ways the most brutal in recent memory.

He may have the admiration, respect and sympathy of the vast majority of his MPs but, once he defied their demands for him to go quickly, they unhesitatingly plunged the knife deep into his chest.

Even the assassination of Margaret Thatcher was done largely behind closed doors.

But even some of Mr Kennedy's closest supporters had become frustrated and even angry at the way he had, in their view, attempted to go over their heads to the party membership in a bid to hang on to his job.

In the end, Mr Kennedy was faced with a killer ultimatum that if he refused to stand down, he would face resignations and an even greater crisis.

Few doubt that it was his fiercest critics who sparked the crisis by whipping up speculation about his ability to do the job and his lifestyle

So it had become blindingly obvious to most that, even if he somehow managed to hang on, that would not have ended the crisis, just made it worse.

The other big parties would also have made hay with his position and, politics being what it is, his self-confessed drink problem.

It is certainly the case that Mr Kennedy misjudged the nature of the crisis which was breaking around his head in the past few days.

Up to job

But he had received plenty of warnings in recent weeks and even, if we are to believe some of his colleagues, past months.

Few doubt that it was his fiercest critics who sparked the crisis by whipping up speculation about his ability to do the job and his lifestyle.

And, as remarks by the likes of loyalist Lembit Opik have made clear, that will leave a legacy of bitterness and even division in the party.

But it is also the case that there had long been a view amongst senior Lib Dem MPs that he was not quite up to the job of taking his party forward from its current, historically significant Commons position.

New Tory leader

He was widely seen as a capable, charismatic and likeable man but there were plenty in his party who wanted a bit more fire and a bit more killer instinct.

There was also some disappointment that, despite that historically good showing at the last general election, the party did not do much better, particularly in seizing Tory seats.

The momentum to remove him had become unstoppable

And this at a time when there is a huge philosophical debate raging at the centre of the party over its future direction.

There were also the occasions when, it was claimed, his performance had been affected by his drinking - most famously in 2004 when he failed to turn up for the budget debate in the Commons.

And there were numerous stories about his drinking doing the rounds in Westminster although he and his aides always strenuously denied it was a problem and there is still no absolute proof it did ever affect his performance.

But the momentum to remove him had become unstoppable. It was partly sparked by panic in Lib Dem ranks at the possibility of a resurgent Tory party under David Cameron squeezing them off the political map.

But, at the end of the day, it was the battle over the future direction of the party that was the cause of this assassination - his drinking made things that much worse and, probably inevitably, became the weapon that finished him off.

Coronation?

What the future now holds for the Liberal Democrats is far from certain.

As Mr Kennedy said in his resignation statement, the big question now is how the two wings - the so-called social liberals and economic liberals, often branded as left and right - can be united behind a clear new agenda.

That task will fall to the next leader, but there are some big questions about exactly who has the qualities needed to manage it.

Firstly there will be the leadership contest itself with all the dangers of a divisive and distracting battle between representatives of the two wings.

Amongst others, party president Simon Hughes has long been ambitious for the job, deputy leader Sir Menzies Campbell is seen as a powerful, if older, potential candidate and Mark Oaten has also been tipped as a possible runner.

Alternatively, there may well be a mood for a swift coronation of a single candidate who commands widespread support across the party with deputy, and now stand-in, leader Sir Menzies Campbell a distinct possibility.

Meanwhile, of course, the other two parties will look on with undoubted relish at the continuing internal problems besetting the Liberal Democrats.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
How Kennedy's resignation unfolded




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