Much of the coverage of Charles Kennedy's death has focussed on his drinking and the end of his tenure as leader of the Liberal Democrats. By way of balance, this is an extract from my book A Classless Society, about the fine start he made to his leadership, immediately distancing himself from Tony Blair:
In 1999, after eleven years in office, Paddy Ashdown announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Liberal Democrats. From the messy wreckage left behind by the 1988 merger of the Liberals and the SDP, he had managed to salvage a workable third party, and to build its representation substantially in the Commons. His association with Blair had yielded some fruit – legislation on human rights and freedom of information were partly due to Lib Dem campaigning – but the ultimate goal remained as elusive as ever.
The party, in its various guises, had been waiting to achieve a share of power longer than Britain had been waiting for a men’s singles champion at Wimbledon, and still it hadn’t materialised.
Perhaps his successor, the much younger Charles Kennedy, might be the one to make the breakthrough, though Ashdown didn’t seem very convinced. Kennedy was ‘a very attractive personality but he could be lazy and foolhardy’, was the verdict he delivered to Blair, who was later to come to the same conclusion: ‘All that talent. Why is he so idle?’
On the day he was elected leader, Kennedy received a phone call from Blair with an invitation to a private dinner that evening. His casually unimpressed response set the tone of his new style: ‘Terribly sorry; I’m already fixed up.’
When he did finally meet Blair in Downing Street, his first question was, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’, deliberately breaking the ban on cigarettes imposed by Cherie. He subsequently began to pull away from Labour, opening the possibility that the Lib Dems might now return to being a party of opposition...