At last, we can all start to fight for our principles again

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THE THING I most like about being a politician is that you never know what's going to happen next. You wake up one morning to hear on the radio that Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait, and in the space of just a few hours the things you had planned to do with the next six months of your life are dumped while you get into the campaign to stop the war. Most often it's international affairs that transform a political situation but occasionally a domestic crisis has the same effect.

Often the death or resignation of an individual politician can have a powerful news impact but, with the passage of time, the more mature judgement is that their removal from the scene in fact changed very little. The classic example is Harold Wilson's resignation in 1976. Although there had been occasional hints that Harold did not intend to go on after the age of 60, nobody really believed it and there was therefore massive media speculation about why he had retired, and then a torrent of coverage as the big hitters of the Cabinet contested the succession. Yet, viewed from a generation on, it's quite clear that replacing Wilson with Callaghan made no substantive change to modern British politics, though the personalities of both men were so different.

It's this lesson- that not much of substance will alter - which seems to be informing most commentators as they ponder the consequences of Paddy Ashdown's retirement. I'm not sure that they are right this time.

Let me make clear from the outset that I have always admired and respected Paddy Ashdown and the courageous stance he took on the whole issue of Yugoslavia's disintegration - it's just a pity that he didn't allow the humour he uses so well in private to be glimpsed by the public. But on the issue of the links between the Lib Dems and Labour he has been woefully misguided.

No one except the most dyed-in-the-wool sectarians will object to the decision of the Liberal Democrats to work with Labour to force through policies which both parties genuinely support. Anything that ends the mind-numbing stupidity of parliamentary opposition for opposition's sake will only improve the quality of political debate in Britain.

But to go one step beyond that and try to start to compromise out of existence genuine, principled differences will only confirm people's cynicism about the underlying lack of principle in most of today's political decision- making.

The most depressing example has been the way in which the Liberals have betrayed a three-generation commitment to a voting system that gives the public a greater choice in elections. The way in which the Lib Dems have sat down and rubber-stamped the Government's proposals for closed-list systems for the European elections, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the new Greater London Assembly is something of which they should be deeply ashamed. It has given all the major party machines vast new powers of patronage that they have immediately grabbed and used with a vengeance to remove anyone who is not on message.

Paddy's belief that the Lib Dems would have more influence by following a Me Too philosophy ignores the way real politics works. Every time Paddy pulled his punches at Question Time or announced without consultation with his own party some new co-operation deal with the Cabinet, it merely demoralised his troops on the doorstep and allowed the Labour Government to assume that it could get away with anything.

The only thing that those with power understand is strength. No political bureaucracy changes unless it is forced to by public pressure, and it certainly does not concede power to others. Paddy mistook the trappings of access to power for the real thing. It was really no skin off Tony Blair's nose to spend half-an-hour a month politely listening to Paddy if in return he could slowly absorb the Lib Dems into some new centre coalition.

The problem for both Tony and Paddy is that the vast bulk of their MPs and party members don't wish to be absorbed into some ghastly centre coalition. Labour and Lib Dem activists in their hundreds of thousands value ideas and debate. Fortunately Lib-Dem activists now have a heaven-sent opportunity to cut off the electricity of this new Frankenstein's monster.

Of course, political commentators have been spun the line that whoever is Paddy's replacement will continue to deliver The Project that was so revealingly spelt out by Philip Gould in his recent Unfinished Revolution. The most ludicrous example of this spinning was the Sunday newspaper reports that Tony Blair was throwing his weight behind Charles Kennedy's campaign to succeed Paddy Ashdown.

Perhaps Labour's spin doctors were putting the best face possible on a likely Kennedy victory, but those of us who have sat in Parliament and watched the steam coming out of Charles Kennedy's ears during Paddy Ashdown's fawning performances at Prime Minister's Question Time have our doubts about this analysis. Both Charles Kennedy and Simon Hughes have argued vociferously that the Lib Dems should place themselves firmly to the left of Labour and start to clean up in English politics in the same way that the SNP have been doing north of the Border.

Tony Blair himself revealed that he is alert to these dangers at a recent meeting with Scottish Labour MPs who were complaining about the advances being made by the SNP. He replied that the trouble was: "in Scotland disillusioned Labour voters have somewhere else to go".

In the run-up to the Liberals' leadership contest the local and European elections will undoubtedly see the Lib Dems making big gains at Labour's expense, thus poisoning the attitude of grass-roots Labour activists to any prospect of coalition politics. The size of these gains means that, by contrast, Liberal activists will be beginning to see the real prospect of overtaking the Tory party if they can eat into some of Labour's core support in the way they have done with Tory support over the last 30 years.

I have no doubt that Lib Dem members will elect as leader the person they think is most likely to lead that fight into Labour's heartlands.

And I suspect that, in a decade's time, we shall judge that Paddy Ashdown's resignation was a decisive turning-point in British politics and a decisive defeat for those who think that the best way to keep the Conservatives out of office is to turn your back on every principle and achievement that the Labour Party has won throughout the last century.