AFTER ASHDOWN: Village hall rejoices at quick return

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THERE HAS always been something a little theatrical about Paddy Ashdown. So the fog that swirled like dry ice on a movie set was a more than suitable backdrop as he arrived back in Somerset last night.

He had returned ostensibly to tell the party faithful why he had quit. In reality he ended up smiling flirtatiously with the silver-haired ladies who make up the bulk of the Yeovil constituency party executive committee. One sensed that, although they were used to it, they loved it all the same.

Shortly before arriving at Norton Sub Hamdon village hall the local party chairman, Hilary Leamon, asked the committee to be understanding when Paddy - never anything other than Paddy - arrived from London. The former Special Boat Squadron member who had survived the jungles of Borneo was going to be tired and, after speaking briefly, his wife, Jane, was going to take him home for tea. Would that be all right? Of course it was.

He may well have been tired but Mr Ashdown was not going to let his fans down. Moments later he strode into the hall and took his seat at the centre of a semi-circle of chairs.

"To those of you who don't always come to council meetings, let me tell you it is always like this," he joked, pointing to the flash-guns exploding around him.

But soon he became more serious: with European and local elections in spring, there was an awful lot of work to do. "All journeys ... come to an end and the important thing is they end in an appropriate and proper fashion," he continued.

"I have one ambition ... It is to ensure my successor here in Yeovil, when the time comes, is a Liberal Democrat." Every eye in the hall was fixed on him and he clearly found making this speech more emotional than he might have expected.

Those assembled were more than colleagues; they were also his dear friends. "You have given me the job that has made my life. I cannot thank you enough."

There was a chorus of half-hearted boos when Paddy asked the committee to give a round of applause for the assembled press.

The people of Yeovil - the Liberal Democrats in particular - enjoy its status to outsiders as the "place Paddy Ashdown represents" and they also seemed to enjoy the media attention.

Asked what it was like to return, Paddy said: "I was living in Norton Sub Hamdon before I even thought of going into politics. I did not represent Yeovil to go to Westminster, I went to Westminster to represent Yeovil." And coming home was something he loved.

There were no great revelations, but it had been a fine performance by Paddy. Almost certainly because he meant everything he had said.