The Lib Dem MPs were told to go to a committee room near their leader's House of Commons office. The last time Liberal Democrat MPs had been summoned in this way was before Christmas, when Paddy Ashdown announced that he had signed a co-operation pact with Tony Blair. They knew something was up.
At 5.15pm the MPs filed into committee room 11 where Paddy Ashdown was sitting at the top of the table flanked by chief whip Paul Tyler and deputy leader Alan Beith. "We didn't quite know what to expect," said one MP. It came as some surprise when Ashdown began to read from a prepared statement about his intention to stand down after 11 years as leader.
There were bemused glances across the table from MPs, none of whom, apart from a small inner circle of Mr Ashdown's trusted colleagues and press officers, had any inkling of his plans. "We thought it was some new initiative with Blair," said one MP. "We were quite relieved when we found out it was just Paddy resigning."
They had assumed that Mr Ashdown would stay to steer his party through the next election. He was at the high point of his career. He had gained a place at a cabinet table and only the week before had won a say in shaping Britain's European foreign and defence policy. He was leading the biggest Liberal parliamentary party since Lloyd George.
It was only 15 minutes earlier that Ashdown had told his senior "cabinet" of MPs, including Bob Maclennan, Alan Beith, Menzies Campbell and Simon Hughes, of his intention to resign. The response was "stunned silence" according to one MP present. Another reported that Bob Maclennan, a former member of the SDP, said: "Good". The only MP to express regret was Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, and one of Mr Ashdown's closest political friends.
ON MONDAY a few close political confidants were told of his decision to go at an informal gathering attended by Jane Ashdown. The timing was crucial. Mr Ashdown said he was not going to leave for five months. He was warned by allies not to leave the party in limbo during such an important time - and to leave the announcement until after the European elections in June. Otherwise this would force a protracted election race among ambitious colleagues. But he did not heed their warnings.
The resignation announcement was in the end a strangely formal and low- key affair. There were no cries of amazement, no protests, no emotional tributes. Diana Maddock, President of the Lib Dems, gave a response. Alan Beith, who lost to Mr Ashdown in the last leadership election, made "nice noises" about him. Colleagues banged the table in appreciation and murmured a few words of approval. But within 45 minutes the whole event was over.
The MPs filed off - some with smiles on their faces - to a pre-arranged leaving party at a Whitehall pub for one of the press officers. The gossip centred on why Mr Ashdown, enjoying massive approval ratings and as close to power as any Liberal had come since the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s, had suddenly decided to pack it in.
The official version was that Paddy had decided before the last election to quit so that he could spend more time with his loyal wife Jane. The Liberal Democrat leader, who turns 58 next month, did not relish fighting another general election or leading the party at 65. He wished to leave the job while he was ahead.
But rumours began to circulate that Mr Ashdown had resigned because he was angry that his MPs had not backed him as firmly as they should over co-operation with Tony Blair. Lib Dem MPs are nervous about his overtures to New Labour and worried that the independence of the party could be sacrificed by "cosying up" to Blair. Before Christmas Lib Dem MPs vetoed extending the number of subjects to be discussed in the joint cabinet committee - restricting Paddy to joint European defence and security policy.
The growing realisation that he was not going to get PR in time to deliver coalition government, MPs say, must have influenced his decision to go. "He has become increasingly frustrated that things he hoped would progress faster aren't happening," said one MP.
As to the future, friends believe Mr Ashdown will take on a new international role, possibly as a UN envoy with responsibility for Kosovo or as a European common foreign and security policy supremo. "He is not the sort of person who sits around and potters about the garden," said one friend.
Paddy Ashdown has transformed a party from a marginal entity to a genuine force with influence on government. But the Blair-Ashdown project is in increasing jeopardy. In the past few days both party leaders have made noises about keeping the project on track. Downing Street stressed that strategy meetings between Jack Cunningham and Alan Beith would continue and hinted that they may want to extend co-operation into areas such as welfare, where the Liberal Democrats have real expertise, and the single currency.
While many Lib Dem MPs are wary of closer ties with Labour, key members of the Cabinet, including Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw and John Prescott, have also come out against extending the remit of the joint cabinet committee. "I have other things to do," said one Cabinet minister last week. They hope the whole project, which lost its momentum after the resignation of Peter Mandelson last month, will run into the sand.
Blair hoped that a new Third Way in British politics would ensure that the Conservative-dominated 20th century would be mirrored by a 21st century dominated by centre-left government. Some close to government speak of the "Hoover effect'' - of sucking up the Liberal Democrats into the great Labour dust bag. But that vision depends on who succeeds Ashdown as Liberal Democrat leader. What Blair thinks about the candidate is almost as important as the views of the Liberal grassroots. If the new leader is not someone Blair can do business with, the prospects of PR - and coalition government - are doomed.
Mr Ashdown told the Labour leader of his intention to stand down before anyone in his party. He even ran the date of the announcement by the Prime Minister, and Mr Blair had offered to delay a crucial statement on reform of the House of Lords to avoid a clash.
The leadership contenders, nervous of being seen as Blairite lap-dogs, are unlikely to be publicly sycophantic towards the Labour leader. But candidates, knowing that most of the 105,000 Lib Dem members who will pick the new leader will want to continue to gain ground with the Government, have already been making pro-Labour statements.
Even Simon Hughes, who voted against extending the remit of the joint cabinet committee with Blair, has been insisting he is not "an anti-co- operation". Charles Kennedy, who last year was openly critical of getting too close to Labour, has, since the Ashdown announcement, "done a back- flip politically", said one insider.
The young Scot, who was a member of the SDP, is said to be favoured by Downing Street as a shrewd political operator, and his high media profile should win him votes. Alone of the potential candidates he was unavailable for comment.
The succession contest does not officially begin until after the European elections in June (MPs have been warned by the leadership not to start electioneering) but it is clear that Liberal Democrat politics will be dominated by an increasingly bitter row about who can deliver PR and power for the Liberals.
Menzies Campbell, the foreign affairs spokesman who sits on the joint cabinet committee with Ashdown, is regarded as "a man we can work with" by Blair, and, if he decides to stand, is thought to be Kennedy's chief rival for the leadership.
Nick Harvey, the campaigns chief who was so quick out of the blocks that senior party officials, bemused by his "electioneering", told him to "cool it", is also someone who has always been pro-project. But his "Hague-like tendencies" - he is regarded as a bright strategist and debater but bad television performer - may count against him, as may his eagerness to promote himself.
With six months of uncertainty ahead, it may be the Conservatives and Labour who benefit from the in-fighting in the offing. "They need someone to lead them," said one Labour source. "Without Paddy and no leader allowed to campaign there is no one personality the voters can identify with."
Last week, Tony Benn, the veteran Labour MP, crossed the floor to the Liberal Democrat benches. In his hand were nomination papers for a "strong leader" with "good Liberal credentials". The candidate's name was Tony Blair.Reuse content