Mr Ashdown brings the salty air of realism to Brighton

Not even the shimmering landscape of the `liberal century' will persuade the electors to back PR
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NOT EVEN a virtuoso turn by a leader so macho that his latest trick is opening beer bottles with his teeth could dispel the sense that the Liberal Democrats are a party marking time on their long, long yomp to what its leader hopes is a share of real power. Paddy Ashdown remains a radical force in British politics. He says necessary things which no minister, ground down by the intimidating burdens of office, would dare to say now: that Britain urgently needs a Freedom of Information Act which bites; that a devolving administration worthy of the name should be trusting local councils to spend the money they can raise; that parliament, ministeriat, and civil service are bigger than they need be and were "when we governed half the world, 60 years ago".

He has a clear line on the euro - that Britain should jump into it before it is pushed. He has innovative ideas about improving government through annual performance contracts. He is tougher on environmental taxes than a government wary of offending the polluters thinks it can afford to be. All this and more Ashdown covered in an effective, well crafted speech to the faithful in Brighton yesterday.

But none of it matters even slightly unless Ashdown can bring his strategy to the successful conclusion that is now so tantalisingly in sight. This was, indeed, one of his own subtexts yesterday. This is a party waiting, not so much for Lord Jenkins' report on electoral reform, as for Tony Blair's response to it. The headline of Ashdown's speech, therefore, was in his challenge to Blair to define himself as a pluralist rather than as a control freak by endorsing electoral reform.

But he used language to his own party which, by the standards of his previous coded conference speeches, was blunter. In doing so he reflected a new realism which, in spite of the glee and relative frequency with which the conference overturned the leadership this week, has at last begun to pervade the party, at least over electoral reform.

Last year the conference passed, by acclaim and with the unhesitant dogmatism of flat-earthers, a motion insisting that any change to the electoral system had to bring in multi-member constituencies elected by Single Transferable Vote, as in Ireland. This year they are ready to take anything Lord Jenkins is likely to offer them. Yesterday the representatives in the hall barely squirmed when Ashdown reminded them of as much - reminded them that winning the public's consent to change depended not on offering a system which was "mathematically perfect", but one which the public wanted.

Anywhere else this would have been a banal truism. To a Liberal Democrat audience it is a timely warning. There are still many in the party, including some of its MPs, who fondly imagine that the nation will be persuaded to vote for a new electoral system simply because it will increase the number of Liberal Democrat MPs. It never occurs to such people that a less self-serving case might have to be made,or that the voters have to be persuaded that they will get more power from their quinquennial act in the ballot box if the system is changed.

Ashdown was also more forthright than in the past about what this means for the party and its relations with New Labour. The more introverted tendency among Liberal Democrats also imagine, even as they criticise Blair for being authoritarian, that the Prime Minister will suddenly have an onset of pluralism so overwhelming that he will back a change in the voting system which will treble their representation without having any earnest hope of co-operation in return.

Ashdown delighted the hall by eloquently attacking Labour for its rotten boroughs in local government, for its perceived timidity about EMU, for the nannyish tendencies of some of its ministers. But he stressed with equal eloquence how many of his own party's cherished goals had been achieved by co-operation with the Government. This was true even on the sole issue where the Liberal Democrats do have some leverage; the Scottish parliamentary elections next year, which could just leave the party holding the balance of power between the SNP and Labour. On the one hand, he urged Labour to give the Scottish party more freedom - perhaps, though he did not say so, to clean up Scottish councils by allowing them to be elected by PR. On the other, he pledged to fight separatism - which is hardly compatible with forming a coalition with the SNP.

But not even the shimmering landscape of the "liberal century", as Ashdown put it, will be enough to persuade the electors to back PR. Not only Conservatives will be put off by a change in the voting system which merely looks like a means of entrenching Lib-Labber for as far as the eye can see. Which is one reason why instead of the "AV-plus" system which adds a proportional top-up to constituency MPs elected on a preferential system, a First Past the Post-plus system - the same as that to be used in Scotland - looks superficially attractive. Because it would not also entrench tactical voting between Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters, it would be harder for the Tories to oppose. None of the options have yet closed even on the Jenkins committee itself; but it would be surprising if Lord Jenkins did not include in his reform of the system a means of eliminating the absurdity that many MPs are elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes in their constituency and some with less than 30 per cent. In other words, AV-plus.

For despite the conventional wisdom that a referendum will be very hard to win, that is not what the unpublished qualitative and quantitative research available to the parties suggests. So far, support for a system which would give both a more proportional outcome, and which maximises voter choice by allowing first and second preferences, is looking remarkably robust. Some tentative findings, remarkably, suggest a majority in favour even if the Prime Minister opposed it - provided, of course, that the system was fully and persuasively explained.

But then that is not the main reason for the deep uncertainty still clouding the issue. For the main problem remains the willingness of Labour MPs, some of their supporters in the Cabinet, and the unions which sponsor MPs, to forsake short-term strength for long-term hegemony.

All of this will be evident next week in Blackpool when the Labour Party conference debates an emergency motion in favour of the status quo. Those around Ashdown continue to claim that the Prime Minister will not break the manifesto commitment - which, though it does not do so explicitly, they regard as applying to this parliament - to hold the referendum before the next election, but they cannot be sure.

Blair likes Ashdown; he wants to keep him as an ally; at the same time, he is under pressure to delay a referendum until after the next election. At the moment the talk of leadership rivals to Ashdown is woefully premature. He remains, and will do so for some time, the one Liberal Democrat with the necessary public profile to lead his party successfully. Next year, if the prospects of PR are looking more distant, it could all start to look very different.