Only Charles Kennedy is capable of bubble-gumming this coalition together
Where would muddle-headed mugwumps be without Charlie?
In this season of goodwill and fellowship I am well aware, O kind and loyal readers, of the many calls there have already been on your charity, and I know how magnificently you respond. But I want today to draw your attention to the plight of a victim scarcely less deserving than the causes for which you recently rang The Daily Telegraph Christmas appeal.
He is far more winsome than the baby seals of the Canadian ice floes, with their voracious appetites for cod. He is more endangered than the Giant Panda, whose laid-back style he so brilliantly emulates. He is the red squirrel of British politics, a cheerful addition to a drab landscape, about to be ruthlessly extinguished by his grey-suited brethren.
Here he is, the fellow who actually increased the Lib Dems' representation in the Commons at the last election, and he is the victim of brutal briefings by "unnamed" Liberal MPs. "Charlie's gotta go," say these nameless ones. "He's in the last chance saloon," they say, adding, "ho, ho."
Why are they so nervous of naming themselves, these unnamed Liberal MPs? It's not as though their names would be recognised by anyone else. The only distinctively named Lib Dem MP is my friend Lembit Opik, the brilliant asteroid spokesman, and he is one of the few to have had the guts to speak out for Charlie.
The rest are unnamed and brutal. It is pitiful to watch. And that is why I hereby declare myself the founding president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Charles Kennedy, and hope that as many of you as possible will feel moved to subscribe.
It is not just that Charlie is a thoroughly nice chap, which he is. It is not merely that he has been known to try to supplement his parliamentary rations with appearances on television quiz shows. My reasons for sympathy are partly that he is known to have a fondness for the gift of Dionysus, and that is to be defended.
We live in an age of easy, gifted telegenic politicians who never put a foot wrong or slur their words on Newsnight, and it is therefore magnificent that the Liberal Democrats continue to have a leader with a Churchillian ability to slot it away. But above all I am slapping a preservation order on Charlie Kennedy, and listing him as a Grade One landmark of our culture, because he, and he alone, represents a sizeable electoral minority.
To understand the modern Lib Dems, you have to understand a key feature of human psychology. The world is full of people who have pretty strong views about politics, and who are fairly sure where they stand on the spectrum. There are millions of people out there who want freedom, lower taxes, less regulation, less spin, the maintenance of Britain's democratic institutions, a culture of enterprise that encourages people to get on as far as they can, with decent public services and a net beneath which no one can fall.
These tend to be Conservatives. Then there is another huge group of people who seem to believe in higher taxes, more public spending, regulation, bossiness, control, surrendering the rebate to Brussels without any reform of the CAP and horrible bendy buses that crush cyclists. These people, by and large, vote Labour.
But there is a third group, a minority, but a minority that possesses a characteristic human psychological deformity. They can't stand the pettiness of intellectual consistency. They want it all ways, and are capable of holding two mutually contradictory positions at once. Their policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it, and they need a party that reflects them and their politically schizophrenic personalities.
That is why it is so vital that we continue with Charlie Kennedy's Liberal Democrats and all their hilarious doublethink. There are not many Lib Dems in Parliament, but even in that tiny group they incarnate dozens of diametrically opposing positions. You want to know what the Lib Dem policy is on taxation, for instance, and you want to know whether they are for or against a 50 per cent tax rate. One half of your cerebrum thinks it is quite right that the rich should pay more; the other lobe thinks tax is quite high enough already. You are a perfect Lib Dem, a mass of contradictions, and your party supplies exactly what you are looking for.
Here is Chris Huhne MEP, their economics wallah, reported in this paper on Sept 20, 2005. "The 50p top rate of tax is now looking in international terms quite uncompetitive... and there are alternative ways of being redistributive."
And here is Sir Menzies Campbell, reported on the very same day in the same paper: "I don't have any difficulty with a 50 per cent tax rate and I see no reason why those earning over £100,000 should not make a greater contribution." Fantastic! Taken together, those policies cancel each other out and amount to babble, and the same goes for Lib Dem policies on the NHS. Nick Clegg MP says: "I think breaking up the NHS is exactly what you need to do to make it a more responsive service... frankly the faults of the British health service compared to others still leaves much to be desired."
And here is Evan Harris MP: "Party spokesmen have to understand that the language we use when talking about reform is vital and talk of breaking it up is not helpful." And so on. Vincent Cable wants to tax and spend. David Laws is against tax and spend. David Laws says let the market play a role in health. Steve Webb says don't.
Only Charles Kennedy is capable of bubble-gumming this coalition together. It is now quite clear that if he were to go, he would be replaced by someone who might come perilously close to endorsing one position or the other, rather than keeping up the amazing Lib Dem strategy of endorsing both. The party would be taken over either by the likes of Mark Oaten and Nick Clegg, who seem in many ways to be very similar to David Cameron's Tories; or else it would go Left under Simon Hughes and the rest of the tofu-munching busybodies.
Like splitting the hydrogen atom, this microscopic party will be suddenly and violently resolved into a vaguely Tory proton, and a vaguely Labour electron. And where will that leave the muddle-headed mugwumps who want high tax and low tax at once? A huge minority, the politically schizoid, will be deprived of representation. It is not fair.
Save Charlie Kennedy this Christmas.