Charles Kennedy sidelined amid health concerns

Former party leader set to lose key referendum role amid fears of ill-health.

The Lib Dems maintain real affection for Charles Kennedy, but even their patience has been tested after the former party leader pulled out of a series of conference events.

Kennedy left the conference early yesterday -- missing Nick Clegg's speech -- ostensibly for "family reasons", but concerns over his health have been voiced across the party. He pulled out of a Guardian fringe event yesterday lunchtime, having already missed the opening rally of the conference and another fringe meeting on Sunday night.

A spokesman for Kennedy said: "He was due to be heading back to London. Charles had never intended to be at conference for Nick's speech. He has a family event this afternoon."

Today's Times reports that (£) plans for him to play a leading role in the referendum campaign next year are set to be abandoned. One senior Liberal Democrat is quoted as saying: "I don't think you can rely on him for anything." Another said: "I honestly don't know what the problem is."

Friends of Kennedy's concede that he has struggled to recover from alcoholism and that there are days when he is "below par".

It's not hard to see why this year has been tougher than most for Kennedy. He separated from his wife last month, suffered the death of his long-standing political adviser, Anna Werrin, earlier in the year and has had his every utterance picked over for signs of disloyalty.

Admirers of Kennedy, both inside and outside the party, hope to see him make a return to front-line politics in the future. But for now, Kennedy's health problems, real or imagined, are holding this impressive campaigner back.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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