Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy dies suddenly at 55

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TRIBUTES from across the political spectrum have been paid to former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, whose death at the age of 55 has shocked Westminster.

Mr Kennedy had served as an MP for 32 years, but was ousted from his Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency last month as the SNP swept the board north of the border in the general election.

Former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said Mr Kennedy’s death “robs Britain of one of the most gifted politicians of his generation”, while acting Labour leader Harriet Harman said he “brought courage, wit and humour to everything he did”.

Prime Minister David Cameron said: “I’m deeply saddened by the death of Charles Kennedy. He was a talented politician who has died too young. My thoughts are with his family.”

Mr Kennedy’s leadership of the Lib Dems, which saw the party enjoy its greatest electoral success by winning 62 seats in 2005, was marked by his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq.

Labour ex-prime minister Tony Blair, who took the country to war in 2003, described his former opponent’s death as an “absolute tragedy”.

Mr Blair said: “He came into Parliament at the same time as me in 1983. He was throughout his time a lovely, genuine and deeply committed public servant.

“As leader of the Liberal Democrats, we worked closely together and he was always great company, with a lively and inventive mind. I am very saddened indeed by this news.”

Mr Blair’s deputy prime minister Lord Prescott added his tribute to Mr Kennedy, saying: “He proved to be right on Iraq. History will be as kind to him as he was to others. A great loss.”

Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader at the outbreak of the Iraq war, said Mr Kennedy was always “kind and courteous, even when we disagreed”.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Charles devoted his life to serving Scotland and his beloved Highlands. His passion for making our country a better place to live is his lasting legacy. I am proud to have known Charles Kennedy and our country today is the poorer for his passing.”

Mr Kennedy’s leadership of the Lib Dems ended in 2006 after he admitted having a problem with alcohol.

Mr Clegg told Sky News: “In my view, Charles Kennedy on form, on a good day when he was feeling strong and happy, had more political talent in his little finger than the rest of us put together.

“That’s why everyone felt, still of course feels today, that it was so tragic to see someone with such huge gifts also struggle, as many people do, with the demons that clearly beset him and the problems that he acknowledged he had with alcohol.”

The loss of his Westminster seat came after an election campaign during which Mr Kennedy was forced to take a break following the death of his 88-year-old father Ian in April.

He is survived by his 10-year-old son Donald, who was born during the 2005 election campaign.

Mr Clegg said: “Charles’s untimely death robs Britain of one of the most gifted politicians of his generation.

“Charles devoted his life to public service, yet he had an unusual gift for speaking about politics with humour and humility which touched people well beyond the world of politics.

“He was a staunch internationalist and passionate believer in Britain’s role in Europe, yet he was a proud Highlander, Scot and British Parliamentarian.

“He was one of the most gentle and unflappable politicians I have ever known, yet he was immensely courageous too, not least when he spoke for the country against the invasion of Iraq.

“He led the Liberal Democrats to our party’s greatest electoral successes, yet he always remained modest about his huge achievements.”

Lib Dem leadership contender Norman Lamb, who served as Mr Kennedy’s parliamentary private secretary during his time at the head of the party, said: “This is an untimely death and a really tragic loss of a lovely and immensely talented man - one of the most talented politicians of his age.”

Mr Lamb’s leadership rival Tim Farron said: “Charles was a friend, colleague and personal mentor. I am desperately saddened by news of his death this morning.

“His gentle good humour combined with real courage enabled him to engage with people who might otherwise have had little interest in politics and he gave voice to the views of millions as the only mainstream party leader to oppose the Iraq war.”

SNP MP Ian Blackford, who defeated Mr Kennedy on May 7, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “It is shocking news. I think we all can reflect on the man that we knew, a man that burst on to the political scene by winning the seat in 1983, a bright, breezy, articulate, gregarious, fun-loving man.”

He added: “All of us have flaws, none of us are perfect. It was just so desperate to see a man that struggled so much with the human frailties that we all have. Perhaps there should have been greater support for him.”

Police were called out to Mr Kennedy’s house in Fort William yesterday, after being alerted by the ambulance service.

The cause of his death is not yet known but it is not thought to be suspicious.

A statement released on behalf of his family said: “It is with great sadness, and an enormous sense of shock, that we announce the death of Charles Kennedy.

“Charles died at home in Fort William yesterday. He was 55. We are obviously devastated at the loss.

“Charles was a fine man, a talented politician and a loving father to his young son. We ask therefore that the privacy of his family is respected in the coming days.

“There will be a post-mortem and we will issue a further statement when funeral arrangements are made.”

The father-of-one led the Lib Dems from August 1999 to January 2006.

His political career began in the Social Democratic Party, winning the Ross, Cromarty and Skye seat in 1983 to become the youngest MP of the time at the age of 24.

Just months after the Lib Dems’ election success in 2005, following rumours about his drinking, Mr Kennedy dramatically admitted that he had been receiving treatment for an alcohol problem and said he was calling a leadership contest.

While he had initially declared that he wanted to carry on, he was forced to stand down in the face of the threat of mass resignations by senior colleagues.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, said: “Charles Kennedy reminded us of the continuing importance of being able to rely on a body of principle by which our plans and actions can be both motivated and judged. This body of principle and his determination to uphold the Rule of Law, both at home and internationally, gave great encouragement to many of us who opposed the Iraq war.

“Describing himself as a ‘wee crofter’ hid a steeliness of a man who led and inspired others by his sheer humanity.”