The party to a deception
Published in: Daily Mail
The real sting of many political scandals often lies not so much in the original transgression as in the subsequent cover-up.
In January, Charles Kennedy was forced to resign as the leader of the Liberal Democrats after the disclosure of his alcoholism.
This revelation was not altogether surprising to the many who had long observed the tell-tale symptoms displayed by Mr Kennedy of trembling hands, chalky pallor and flu-like sweating, along with that mysterious disappearance in 2004 before his Budget response — not to mention the persistent rumours of heavy drinking — and drawn the obvious conclusion. Yet Mr Kennedy and his senior colleagues blandly insisted that there was no drink problem.
Now we know that it was not only Mr Kennedy who was not telling the truth. His colleagues were also telling porkies. A new book by Greg Hurst reveals that, for several years, there was a conspiracy at the top of the party to conceal the truth about its leader from the British public.
According to Mr Hurst, Mr Kennedy already had a serious drink problem when he became party leader in 1999.
In 2001, a group of senior LibDems — including the present leader, Sir Menzies Campbell — pressed Mr Kennedy to seek professional help for his drink problem abroad, to avoid the danger that he might be recognised and thus reveal the truth to the public.
In 2003, Mr Kennedy and his inner circle agreed that he would go public with his alcoholism. When he called off the planned press conference at the last minute, those in the know — his chief strategist Lord Razzall, his chief of staff Lord Newby, his secretary Anna Werrin, his press secretary Jackie Rowley and Sir Menzies—became conspirators instead in a continuing cover-up.
The timing of these revelations has prompted claims by the Kennedy camp of dirty tricks. This is because Mr Kennedy is rumoured to be planning a comeback, apparently intending to make a high-profile speech at the party’s annual conference next month.
This in turn is being viewed in some LibDem quarters as a Kennedy dirty trick against Sir Menzies, who is widely seen as a disaster as party leader with his party beached in the polls. By contrast, despite his alcohol problem Mr Kennedy is still viewed as an asset because of his popular touch.
Last month, Mr Kennedy was forced to deny the rumours that he was plotting with Lords Newby and Razzall to make a come-back — even though it was also carefully put about that he had not touched a drink for months.
Maybe this last claim was true. But we now know that these two peers had previously conspired to conceal his alcoholism.
Let us not forget that at the general election in 2005, Mr Kennedy was being touted as a prospective Prime Minister. Yet all the time, those in his closest circle knew that the man they were pushing towards Downing Street was someone who couldn’t even be relied upon to stand and make a speech in the House of Commons because of his addiction to alcohol.
When his drinking rendered him incapable of performing in public, his staff threw a ‘protective shield’ around him and concealed him from view.
It didn’t seem to occur to them that public duty required them to oblige Mr Kennedy to step down. On the contrary, when they planned Mr Kennedy’s ultimately doomed acknowledgement of his problem in 2003, they did so in order to keep him in office —in a cynical gamble that he would thus attract public sympathy.
Whether there is any truth in the claim of a dirty tricks campaign against Champagne Charlie, the ramifications of this affair go far beyond the issue of Mr Kennedy himself.
Indeed, despite Sir Menzies’s palpable difficulties, it was surely always highly unlikely that Mr Kennedy would ever stage a return as party leader. Even so, this is no storm in a wine glass.
With public trust in the government having plunged to unprecedented depths and still falling, but with the Tories still failing to achieve sufficient momentum to gain power, a hung parliament becomes an ever more live possibility. In such an eventuality, the key players would be the Liberal Democrats who might hold the balance of power.
Yet what kind of party is it which, pitching itself as an alternative to the untrustworthiness and opportunism of the two major players, is nevertheless run by people who cynically perpetrated such a fraud upon the voters — and were even prepared to endanger the country by putting an alcoholic into Number Ten?
Even more significantly, a key figure in this cover-up was no less a figure than Sir Menzies Campbell himself. Ironically, Sir Menzies was accused of stitching up Mr Kennedy like a kipper by replacing him as leader. But now we discover that, on the contrary, Sir Menzies was guilty of keeping in office a manifestly unsuitable leader — and concealing it from the public.
The appeal of Sir Menzies, such as it is, lies in his appearing to be a figure of old-fashioned decency and integrity. Yet now we know that for years he was party to this cynical deception of the voters.
One really has to ask oneself whether there is something a bit dubious about the whole Lib Dem brand. After all, Sir Menzies was only appointed party leader after the post-Kennedy leadership election descended into unsavoury farce when almost daily, it seemed, candidates were being outed as unfit for public office.
The erstwhile front-runner Mark Oaten, who had presented himself as an ordinary family man, dropped out of the race when he realised that a newspaper was about to expose his habit of using rent boys, thus revealing the sordid truth to the wife he had deceived along with the rest of the nation.
Another candidate, Simon Hughes, was revealed to have lied about his own sexuality. Having explicitly denied that he was gay, he was forced to acknowledge a gay past and to apologise for telling an untruth when he too was faced with exposure in the press. What was that again about transparency in public life?
What is so nauseating about the LibDems is the mantle of self-righteousness in which they wrap themselves, claiming to be on a higher moral plane altogether than the rest of the political world. Indeed, that’s the basis of their appeal.
For their espousal of wholesome-sounding causes —green issues, anti-war activism, the generally earnest woolliness of the biodegradable knitted muesli set—makes people assume that these politicians too are similarly wholesome.
Alas, just as their policies tend to crumble into dust the moment they are scrutinised, so too do their reputations for integrity.
Those with experience of LibDem campaigning tactics in local elections, with their hallmark character assassinations and portfolio of dirty tricks, have long been aware that the wholesome image doesn’t quite square with the ruthless reality.
Like many countries in the western world, Britain is suffering from a crisis of political leadership and a resulting profound public alienation from politics. The appeal of the Liberal Democrats has been to play upon that disaffection by claiming to connect with those parts of public life that the major political parties cannot reach.
Now we are all once again wiser and sadder. If the future is orange, it is already showing signs of mould. Organic, of course.