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Leader of British Political Party Steps Down

Charles Kennedy, a Liberal Democrat, quits post after his battle with alcohol made headlines.

January 08, 2006|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Charles Kennedy, leader of Britain's third-largest political party, gave in to demands of colleagues and resigned Saturday, two days after being forced to acknowledge a drinking problem.

Kennedy, 46, who had helped raise the Liberal Democrats to the highest level of any third party in British politics since the 1920s, saw his career brought down after a weeks-long campaign by colleagues, who insisted that they were doing it for his good and the good of their party.

Although he said he had not had a drink in two months and was receiving professional help, an ultimatum came in the form of a letter signed by 25 of the 62 Liberal Democrat members of Parliament. They said they would not support him as leader after Monday.

"I am standing down as leader," Kennedy told reporters Saturday at the party's headquarters. "When nominations open for the leadership of the party, I shall not now be putting my name forward."

He said he had received support from rank and file party members but recognized that it was insufficient. "It has become clear that such support is not reflected strongly enough across the parliamentary party."

In 2003, Kennedy was the only British opposition leader to protest Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq.

Although Kennedy's resignation was not expected to bring about any major shift in British politics, his slow political demise has dominated headlines here for a week.

Alcohol abuse and the penchant of many young Britons to engage in binge drinking have become a serious social issue in recent years. British politicians often were known to be heavy drinkers, but the case of Kennedy indicates that such behavior is no longer to be countenanced.

Liberal Democrats began speaking anonymously against Kennedy a few weeks before the Christmas holiday. Using euphemisms, they said such things as he had been "off his game, "tired" or "unfocused" recently.

The attacks began immediately after the Conservatives chose a new leader: charismatic 39-year-old David Cameron, who gave the party a fresh look and political boost. That led some senior Liberal Democrats to think that that their party should change as well to position itself for the next elections, likely to be held in 2009 or 2010.

After insisting that he intended to remain in his post, Kennedy called a news conference Thursday when his office learned that broadcast reporters were about to break the news that he had sought treatment for alcohol abuse. His acknowledgment contradicted earlier denials that he drank excessively.

At that stage, Kennedy said he intended to fight to retain his post, but he agreed to schedule a leadership election if anyone wished to challenge him.

That stance did not satisfy critics, many of whom came out against him more openly Friday, insisting that he spare himself and the party by agreeing to step down.

Kennedy said he would spend the weekend reflecting, but gave in late Saturday, apparently concluding that his position was irrevocably damaged.

A red-haired Scotsman and Roman Catholic from the Highlands near Inverness, Kennedy was the youngest member of Parliament when he was elected to the House of Commons 22 years ago.

Although under Kennedy the Liberal Democrats increased their representation in Parliament, many thought the party should have done better in last year's election, in light of widespread disillusionment with the war in Iraq, which had been backed by both by the Labor and the Conservative parties. To many voters, it seemed, Kennedy lacked the gravity to be considered a potential prime minister.

The Liberal Democrats were formed in 1987 when the Liberal Party, which traced its history to the 19th century, merged with the Social Democratic Party, made up of moderates who had broken away from the Labor Party a few years earlier.

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