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The BBC's June Kelly
Profiles Charles Kennedy
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Friday, 16 February, 2001, 19:22 GMT
Charles Kennedy: Lib Dem Leader

Andrew Marr

At 41, Charles Kennedy has finally come into the inheritance almost every pundit predicted for him earlier in his career.

He was widely tipped as a future SDP, then Alliance, then Liberal Democrat leader.

The big question asked of Kennedy is how far he is an undercover ally of the prime minister, rather than a critical and wholly independent leader

This tipping started not long after he first arrived in the Commons as its youngest member in June 1983. Why?

He had been favoured early because of the strengths he still shows now - his easy, genial charm, his apparent common sense and unflappability, his wry inability to take himself too seriously.

As a Scottish Highlander with a strong social conscience, he seems in many ways the ideal leader for those Liberals who still look back nostalgically to the days of Jo Grimond.


In fact, his real guru is neither Grimond nor David Owen, his first party leader, but that grand old man of liberal, Europhile instinct, Lord (Roy) Jenkins. It is a key connection, worth exploring.

The two leaders see eye-to-eye on some issues
The two leaders see eye-to-eye on some issues

Lord Jenkins came into the Lib Dems via the SDP, as Kennedy did, but his record as Britain's most liberal home secretary, then as a Brussels Commissioner, and his later passionate advocacy of voting reform probably makes Liberal-leaning voters think of him as 'one of us'.

He is also, however, a big influence on Tony Blair, who has dreamed of reuniting the parties of the centre-left, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, into a single, new movement.

The Lib Dems are already in alliance with Labour in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

So the big question asked of Kennedy is how far he is an undercover ally of the prime minister, rather than a critical and wholly independent leader.

Labour links

He was, for instance, heavily attacked by the Tory-inclined newspapers for backing Blair, rather than William Hague, in exchanges over the Mandelson affair.

In fact, Kennedy emphasised his scepticism about New Labour when campaigning for the leadership last year.

He smokes heavily and likes a drink; some of his MPs grumble that he's a little lazy

That may be

Though he likes Mr Blair he has a less close relationship with the prime minister than Paddy Ashdown enjoyed.

Party activists, always and naturally suspicious on this point, are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt - his two spells as Lib Dem president and his energetic local campaigning have given him closer ties with his party than his recent predecessors.

In the end, future relations with Labour will be dictated by how well or badly the two parties need one another after the next election, and not by personal chemistry.

Living for politics

Meanwhile, the liberal, Jenkinsite inheritance is very clear in the manifesto the Liberal Democrats under Kennedy will take into the election.

This manifesto is pro-euro; is committed to 3bn extra for education, plus the penny on income tax that might require; calls for a Royal Commission on drugs and the abolition of tuition fees in England and Wales; and in promising a better deal for asylum seekers, it is everything the old man would approve of.

Long term girlfriend of Charles Kennedy, Sarah Gurling
Long term girlfriend of Charles Kennedy, Sarah Gurling
Unmarried, with a long-standing girlfriend, the young man has lived for politics almost all his adult life but has somehow managed to side-step the self importance that often implies.

His leadership style has surprised many in his party who had become used to the relentless energy of Mr Ashdown.

Fresh air

His speeches are short, and often humorous.

There has been no great policy re-think or relaunch under his leadership, nothing to match the 'Listening to Britain' and 'Commonsense Revolution' upheavals of the Tories under William Hague.

Charles Kennedy with former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown
A welcome change of style to some
He smokes heavily and likes a drink. Some of his MPs grumble that he's a little lazy.

That may be.

But in a political world dominated by pompous, hyperactive men who never seem to look at themselves sideways and grin, the Kennedy charm may be exactly what is wanted by voters fed up to the back teeth with self-importance.

In that, at least, he easily surpasses his mentor.



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