The place where it’s hard to avoid drink

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who has died at the age of 55, found Parliament an apt arena for his charisma and political acumen. But was Westminster a particularly dangerous place for someone with an addiction to alcohol?

“Health holding up,” the text messages read.

That was Charles Kennedy’s code for telling Alastair Campbell it was a sober day, that he was winning his battle with the bottle.

The two talked often about drink and Campbell was a confidant and friend to Kennedy for several years, sharing his own experience of alcohol dependency. The former Labour spinner beat his addiction many years ago but Kennedy, in the end, could not.

Drink will not define the legacy of Charles Kennedy. There was far more to the former Liberal Democrat leader than that. Principled intelligence, abundant charm, a winning smile, a merry chuckle. Under his leadership the party won a record number of seats and voters warmed to him in a way that’s very rare.

Kennedy in 2006, under fire from MPs and peers after admitting his struggle with drinking

And yet, Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism did shape his leadership years, years punctuated by cancelled press conferences, missed appearances in Parliament and a revealingly sweaty speech at a party conference.

There were rumours about Kennedy’s drinking long before Jeremy Paxman tackled him about the subject on Newsnight in July 2002. Paxman asked Kennedy directly how much he drank and got a twinkly, knowing reply. “Moderately and socially, as you well know,” he said with a grin.

But if Kennedy had hoped this conspiratorial reminder of shared past pleasures was going to shake Paxman off he was wrong. Paxman then asked if Kennedy drank privately and alone, “a bottle of whisky late at night?” Instantly, Charles Kennedy’s face burned with anger and indignation. He snapped back: “No, I do not, no.”

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