It was the “worst-kept secret in Westminster.” Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy (no relation) has admitted he had an alcohol problem after months of denying it. He did so just as a national news show, helmed by his former press secretary, was about to broadcast a report on the subject. Often, in such a case, the leader resigns. Kennedy, however, is portraying himself as a brave martyr and has called a leadership election, daring anyone to stand against him. John Major did exactly the same thing in 1995 (and look where that got the Tories). Kennedy’s parliamentary support is, however, crumbling.
This could have very important ramifications for the state of politics in the UK. For most of Britain’s democratic history, the country has had a two-party system, just like the US: whigs and tories, Conservatives and Liberals, Conservatives and Labour. It was only when the Labour Party fractured in the mid-80s under the pressure of the extreme left and the “Social Democrats” joined with the tiny rump of the old Liberal Party that a viable Third Party began to affect things. Anti-Tory tactical voting for the new Liberal Democrats by Labour supporters won the party a swathe of seats from the Conservatives. They held on to most of those even as anti-Labour tactical voting by Conservatives led them to win some seats from Labour. As a result, they have 62 MPs in the House of Commons.
At the same time, they are deeply divided ideologically. They espouse “classical liberal,” free-market policies when that will help them win Tory support and extreme-left, antiwar redistributionist policies when that will help them win leftist support. Kennedy’s increasing incapacity has allowed these splits to grow.
And then came Cameron. While new Tory leader David Cameron’s rush to the political center has alarmed genuine Conservatives, it has attracted vast numbers of voters away from the Liberal Democrats, the polls show. Kennedy failed noticeably to respond to the challenge. If anyone drove the knife into Kennedy’s back, it wasn’t his former Press Secretary, nor the 11 frontbench spokesmen who signed a letter indicating their unhappiness, it was David Cameron. He appears to have pushed the Liberal Democrats off the precipice.
The Liberal Democrats look destined for a period of internecine strife as they try to decide whether they are a free-market Liberal party or a statist Left party. Support will almost certainly wither away as the paper of Kennedy’s leadership is stripped away and the cracks he allowed to grow are revealed.
It is therefore quite possible that a return to two-party politics is imminent in the UK. Ironically, this should make the distinctions between the parties easier to grasp. Without having to worry about tactical voting, the parties will not have to spend time campaigning for a nebuolus “center ground,” but will probably instead be able to target their message more precisely. In that respect, British politics may become more like American. If Cameron has acheived that by a swift and brutal assassination of the Liberal Democrats as a credible electoral force, he deserves praise.