Kennedy must do better

ONCE again, the media is being blamed by politicians for putting the skids under a party leader when its parliamentarians themselves who are busy doing the dirty work.

ONCE again, the media is being blamed by politicians for putting the skids under a party leader when its parliamentarians themselves who are busy doing the dirty work.

For years, various Conservative leaders had to endure the disloyalty of senior colleagues who openly briefed journalists about growing discontent in the ranks. Such a rebellion at the start of the 2003 Tory conference in Blackpool doomed Iain Duncan Smith.

Now it's the turn of the Liberal Democrats, as senior MPs plunge the knife into Charles Kennedy - his future looks distinctly shaky after rumblings about his performance broke surface this week.

Kennedy tried to face down his critics at a meeting of the Parliamentary party. But foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell left early, and when asked if he was backing his leader, said only: “Charles and I have had a profitable relationship.”

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The 64-year-old former Olympic athlete was named by newspapers on Wednesday as the leader of a “revolt” the day before when several Lib Dem spokesmen raised criticisms of Kennedy's style at a shadow Cabinet meeting.

It was reported that up to six unnamed frontbench MPs urged 46-year-old Kennedy to step down in private face-to-face meetings. Something Mr Kennedy has vehemently denied.

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Much of the criticism stems from the mediocre, almost anonymous, performance of the Liberal Democrats and Mr Kennedy since the General Election. The party appears to be going nowhere and its annual conference in September was hit by massive discontent among the rank-and-file, leading to defeats for the leadership over Europe and privatisation of the Royal Mail.

The election of 39 year-old David Cameron as Tory leader has put several Lib Dem MPs into near panic - a rejuvenated Conservative Party which looks electable puts many of them, especially those in the south of England, in severe danger of defeat.

After meeting his MPs this week, Mr Kennedy insisted the party was united and that he would lead the Lib Dems into the next General Election. He made little effort to hide his anger at senior party figures who have been briefing against him in the corridors of Westminster.

“There is a very common sense of anger directed at what has been a period - and I hope that period has come to an end - of unattributable briefing and anonymous comments being retailed through the press about the politics of the party and the leader.”

Eastleigh MP Chris Huhne blamed journalists for “title tattle,” overlooking the fact that the media does not start rumours, merely reports them.

In a television interview, one of the party's most respects figures confirmed that some of the party's frontbench team “craved” strong leadership of the kind they were given by Mr Kennedy's predecessor Paddy Ashdown.

Lord Carlile of Berriew said it was “legitimate” to raise questions over Mr Kennedy's more laid-back and consensual style, particularly at a point when the party faced a challenge from a Conservative Party revitalised by the election of David Cameron.

“There is a legitimate question at the present time as to whether Charles Kennedy is providing the kind of frontline leadership that the party needs in the present part of the political cycle where the Conservative party has a new dynamic, energetic leader.”

Perhaps Mr Huhne would care to enlighten me on how reporting such comments can possibly be described as “tittle tattle.”

THE overwhelming nature of the Hertfordshire oil terminal blaze is likely to hasten the introduction of regional fire and rescue services after the Fire Brigades' Union admitted the county brigade leading the battle against the inferno had been “desperately stretched.”

Specialised help poured in from across Britain to fight the blaze but few crews were available for fires elsewhere in Hertfordshire. Those advancing the regional “bigger is best” philosophy will see this as vindication of their argument that small county brigades cannot cope with today's emergencies.

Regional fire control rooms are set to be introduced in 2007, the ambulance service has been regionalised, the police are almost certain to follow, leaving just fire brigades operating on a county basis.

FBU spokesman Duncan Milligan said that at times just one crew was being dispatched to house or flat fires where normally up to three would attend.

“The resources in Hertfordshire are desperately stretched,” said Mr Milligan. “They have had to deal with a flat fire in Stevenage with one fire engine - normally you would have at least two and possibly at least a third one.”

After another fire at a house in Radlett, he said: “They were desperately stretched to try and get anyone to it. The point being, yes there is a major incident but there is the fact that everything else has to be dealt with as well.”

The operation has caused “tremendous strain”' on the local emergency control operation which had to coordinate a national effort using the part-time retained firefighters who made up much of the service.

Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who are pushing the regional agenda. couldn't have put it better themselves. While there is nothing but praise for the heroic response of the Hertfordshire brigade, you can almost hear the “I told you so” glee in Whitehall that a regional fire and service would have been big enough to have the resources and the manpower to cope with the emergency.

Hertfordshire has had to seek help with high-volume pumps, foam stocks, hose-laying equipment and lighting from brigades in London, Berkshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Greater Manchester. At the scene of the disaster were fire and rescue services from Essex, Cheshire, Buckinghamshire, Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and Humberside.

Hertfordshire is part of the East of England, stretching from the Chilterns to the Wash and the Thames Estuary and covering five other counties - Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.

FORMER foreign secretary Robin Cook, who died earlier this year, has been awarded the coveted House Magazine parliamentary award in honour of his contribution to politics, international relations and the House of Commons. Other parliamentarians honoured at the event included Labour MP Shahid Malik who scooped the maiden speech of the year award.

Baroness Ashton and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw jointly secured the minister of the year award. Dominic Grieve, who masterminded the Conservative assault on the Terrorism Bill, was named opposition politician of the year.

Outspoken and talented Conservative MP John Bercow won the coveted backbencher of the year award. And Labour MP Jim Knight, who retained his Dorset South seat in May's General Election against the odds, scooped the campaigner of the year award.

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