Although it’s usually a slow news time, Britain’s Liberal Democrats
chose the Christmas-New Year period to engage in a prolonged execution
of their leader, Charles Kennedy. After admitting during the week to
what everyone already knew, that he had “a drinking problem,” Kennedy
finally bowed to the inevitable on Saturday and announced that he would not recontest the leadership.

Under Kennedy, the Lib Dems achieved their best result in 80 years at
last year’s election. But it could have been better, and many critics
felt that Kennedy, despite being widely liked and respected, did not
quite have what it takes for the real breakthrough. As Andrew Rawnsley
said yesterday in The Observer,
“The alcohol problem had become symbolic of a wider feeling in his
party that it was time to move on from his horizontally inclined style
of leadership. The Lib Dems no longer need a leader that voters can
imagine having a drink with; they need a leader whom the public can
visualise sitting in the cabinet.”

The week’s events would be traumatic for any party; for one that prides
itself on being “nicer” than its rivals, they could be especially
damaging. It is not far-fetched for Annabel Crabb
to make the comparison with Andrew Bartlett and our own Australian
Democrats. But the Lib Dems are a much bigger concern, with more than
20% of the vote and a history stretching back three and a quarter

The great virtue of Kennedy’s leadership was that he succeeded in
holding together people with a diverse range of views, from
free-marketeers to
left-wing radicals. His successor – deputy leader Menzies Campbell is
the current favourite – will face a difficult task in maintaining
unity while demonstrating a clear policy direction. Although implosion
a la the Australian Democrats is not yet on the cards, the revival of
Tories under new leader David Cameron threatens to dramatically eat
into the Lib Dems’ support base.

The Observer’seditorial
summed up well: “Having taken command, a new Liberal Democrat leader
will have to engage the Conservatives in battle over liberal policy. It
is not inconceivable that an ensuing truce could form the basis of a
coalition pact in the event of a hung parliament. … If they get it
wrong this time, they may never have another chance.”