Liberal Democrats in turmoil over sex scandal

Plunging poll ratings, alcohol abuse and a salacious sex scandal: the fortunes of Britain's opposition Liberal Democrats have taken a decided turn for the worse. The party's law and order spokesman Mark Oaten quit at the weekend over newspaper allegations he paid for sex with a male prostitute. Only two weeks earlier, party leader Charles Kennedy was forced to resign after acknowledging a drinking problem. Now the party, whose opposition to the Iraq war helped its popularity to soar, is fighting to restore its political credibility. "We have got to get back to putting over the policies we believe in and reassuring people or convincing people anew that we have the capability," said Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, on Monday. "It is worth reminding people that we are still the party that stood up against the Iraq war."

Since Kennedy took the helm in 1999, the party has enjoyed its best poll ratings in years. The amiable Scotsman steered the left-of-center party through a successful election last year, stealing votes from both Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party and the Conservative Party, which both supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Although failing to overtake the Conservatives as the main opposition, the Liberal Democrats boosted their tally of lawmakers in the 646-seat House of Commons from 55 to 62.

But sections of the party felt Kennedy should have done better, at a time when Blair's own popularity was crippled by the war. The pressure on Kennedy intensified following the appointment last month of David Cameron, 39, as Conservative leader. Young, dynamic and a skilled communicator, Cameron has reinvigorated the party and already boosted its poll ratings.

Kennedy, 46, acknowledged his drinking problem two weeks ago, when confronted with allegations of alcohol abuse by a British television network. He was forced to step down soon after by senior party lawmakers. The impact on the Lib Dems' popularity was immediate, and a Populus poll conducted days after saw its support slip by three points to just 16 percent, a poor showing for a party that averages 22 percent and its lowest rating since 2001. The same poll put Labour on 39 percent and the Conservatives on 36 percent, both up a point.

Oaten's resignation on Saturday is a further blow to the party, which is in the midst of a leadership election. Oaten, 41, quit after the News of the World newspaper confronted him with allegations he had paid for sex with a 23-year-old man. The married father of two released a statement to reporters apologizing for "errors of judgment" and for the embarrassment caused to family and friends.

Acting leader Sir Menzies Campbell has called on the party to unite and not to be distracted by the scandals. "No party is entirely subject to what happens to any one individual. The party is much bigger than that. My task as acting leader is to secure a sense of unity and purpose," he said, reports the AP. N.U.