The insider - Linda Mcdougall spots a money-making scheme

The truth about Charlie, an MP's touching loyalty, and a slight misunderstanding

At Westminster, cross-party friendships are a bit like extramarital sex. There's a lot of it about, but it's best kept secret. For 20 years now, Charles Kennedy has been a good friend of ours. He's been to stay with me and my husband, the Labour MP Austin Mitchell, at our place in Yorkshire. When he came to the county in his campaign to become Lib Dem leader, I played the role of chauffeur, cunningly disguised in dark glasses and headscarf. We've been on a trip to Saint Croix together. He came to our daughter's wedding. We were there when Charles married Sarah in the crypt of the Commons. Until recently we lived in the same block of flats. In all that time, I have never seen him drunk or out of control, nor has he been anything less than a delight to socialise with.

He is also one of the funniest men around. In the 1980s, Radio 4's Today programme had a triumvirate who were called in to give their views on big political occasions: the late Julian Critchley for the Tories, Austin for Labour, and Charles (then the youngest MP) for the Lib Dems. Critch, Mitch and Tich: there's never been a funnier cross-party grouping.

Does this sound like the pale and fearful figure wiping his brow with trembling hand on every front page in recent days? Charles gets a cold or a stomach bug and it's either alcoholism or Ebola.

Charles is a bit of a loner. He has to be. He doesn't have vast groups of researchers, advisers and pollsters to perk up his image. Yet he was right on Iraq, right on Hutton and right on the Butler report. What he needs now is not the visit to his GP recommended by Dr Jenny (cut out your) Tonge, but a lot more support from his often dithering MPs at Westminster.

Meanwhile in the Labour Party, true loyalty continues unabated. Remember when Tony Blair had his heart scare last year and went to hospital to have his arrhythmia corrected with electric shock treatment? Now Claire Ward, a Labour backbencher (loyalty rating 100 per cent), feels we don't know enough about what troubled her leader. In May, she will be sponsoring Arrhythmia Awareness Week 2004, with guest appearances in the Terrace Marquee from world experts on the illness. Maybe Tony will pop in with appropriately raised heartbeat when he finishes PMQs.

A backbencher of stainless reputation, no name, no party - so no chance of reporting him to Sir Philip Mawer, the parliamentary standards commissioner - tells me he was thrilled when a community leader in his area began to deal with immigrants who wanted to see their MP. Every week, a neatly typed list would be provided, and the constituents would turn up on time, at appropriate intervals. Then, one night, the volunteer appointments organiser was held up elsewhere. At the end of each interview, the constituents seemed confused and reluctant to leave, and as he was about to depart, the MP found them all still in his waiting room. "Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked. Eventually, one spoke up. "Mr X is not here tonight, so who should we pay?"

Paul Routledge is away

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The power of martyrdom