WHEN PADDY Ashdown became leader of the fledgling Liberal Democrats, not much was known about him. The most interesting fact was that he had learnt how to kill with his bare hands when he was in the Special Boat Squadron. Since then he has become one of the most effective politicians at Westminster. Mr Ashdown has forged a powerful alliance with Tony Blair while keeping his independence. That has allowed him to achieve many of his party's long-held ambitions. We have not heard the last of him.
The Daily Telegraph
IT COULD be that Paddy Ashdown will bequeath a bed of nails to his successor. Two points occur. First, will the British electorate any longer vote for a party led by someone sitting for a Scottish seat, now that Scotland has its own parliament? Two of the strongest candidates, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, are Scottish MPs. Second, if there is to be a new map of British politics, where will the Liberal Democrats be found? Doesn't their decision to side with New Labour against the Tories, rather than being equidistant between the two, disable them in the struggles ahead? In the world of the Third Way, what use for the third party?
THE FINAL judgment on Paddy Ashdown's achievement with the party he more or less invented will come when it next fights a general election. His replacement could well be a much younger man - such as Charles Kennedy - who would rather fight both Labour and the Tories in the interests of advancing the Lib Dems as an independent force, in cahoots with no one. If such a change, back to the "tribal" politics that Mr Ashdown has spent the past few years condemning, does improve the Lib Dems' strength at Westminster, then Mr Ashdown really will have gone at the right time. However, if the Ashdown years turn out to be the high-water mark for his party, then some Lib Dems could have him on their consciences for years to come. (Simon Heffer)
MR ASHDOWN'S departure alters the contours of British politics. But a much bigger event - the promised referendum in two or three years' time on participation in the euro - will remake the landscape. New Labour and the Liberal Democrats will then stand on the same side of the most important vote in the nation's post-war history. Was that the beginning of a smile I saw beneath Mr Blair's frown? (Philip Stephens)
WHO WILL now inherit the spread? The most respected of Mr Ashdown's lieutenants, and his closest ally in co-operating with Labour, is Menzies Campbell. But his age would give his leadership a sense of the caretaker. Among the younger MPs, Malcolm Bruce, Charles Kennedy, Simon Hughes and Nick Harvey stand out. But the first three not only lack Mr Campbell's weight: they also do not share his enthusiasm for co-operation. The leadership election to come may be civil, but it cannot avoid laying bare the tensions within Liberal Democracy. It is a tribute to Mr Ashdown that he will then be all the more seen to have managed those strains with skill, grace and fortitude.
The Birmingham Post
FOR YEARS, the Liberal Party was nothing but a repository of protest votes. Its success at the last election was the result of people refusing to vote Conservative. Mr Ashdown's successor will have to decide whether to risk all by staying close to Labour and then hoping Britain opts for PR, or whether to draw back and forge a separate identity for the Liberal Democrats once again.
IT REMAINS possible that Mr Blair, racked by the pain of guilt, will offer Mr Ashdown the consolation prize of a European Commissionership. I hope, for his sake, that he does not take this humiliating bauble. For 18 months he has endured jibes that he has turned himself into Blair's poodle. If he took that European job, it would be the final and definitive proof. (Peter Oborne)
THIS NEWSPAPER called long ago for a realignment of the left, demanding an end to the split which had let Conservatives govern Britain for most of the century. Tony Blair has made that project his own and Paddy Ashdown was his partner in it. The challenge for the Prime Minister now, having lost two of his crucial allies in less than a month, is to keep the faith - and deliver.