Sir: So Paddy Ashdown has announced his retirement and, emerging from the cursory eulogies, comes a motley crew of prospective new leaders eager to head the largest group of Liberal Democrats in the postwar era. The "rescue act" Mr Ashdown performed on an ailing and divided party has been lauded as a relatively successful period in the party's history. But, given what he was left with, there was plenty of room for improvement, begging the question: was his greatest gift that of timing?
The chalice Mr Ashdown has left his successor seems poisoned. Not only is the deal he struck with Mr Blair an embarrassing abandonment of principle in the pursuit of power, but more importantly it condemns his party to almost inevitable losses in the next election. The next incumbent will face the insurmountable task of defending electoral gains attained through tactical voting against a shambles of a Tory party.
No matter what your opinion of Mr Hague, the Tory party is certain to win at least some seats at the next election, if only because it is the Tories now for whom the only way is up. So assuming x amount of losses against the Tories, the Liberals, in order to gain seats, will have to gamble and fight Labour as well as the Tories. In doing so they would not only risk even heavier losses, but also jeopardise any opportunity to influence electoral reform legislation in the next parliament, should Labour, as seems likely, win.
This dilemma looms darkly on the Liberal Democrat horizon and, barring a shift in voting behaviour, would prove a difficult obstacle for any leader to survive. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mr Ashdown should choose now to spend some more time with his family.
Bushey Heath, HertfordshireReuse content