Ashdown does the soft-shoe shuffle

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The Independent Online
The Chancellor of the Exchequer made a cameo appearance yesterday on the campaign trail with Paddy Ashdown. Visiting a workshop manufacturing artificial limbs, Mr Ashdown spotted a false leg with a rather disagreeable suede shoe on the foot. "Ah," said Mr Ashdown. "For Kenneth Clarke I presume."

The Liberal Democrat leader was visiting Queen Mary University Hospital, in Roehampton, south- west London, where the Second World War pilot, Douglas Bader was fitted out with tin legs so that he could get back to fighting the Hun.

Mr Ashdown was looking for help of another kind - sticks with which to beat the Government. But the doctors and nurses, however, were inconveniently optimistic about their lot. Yes life was tough, but no we can't complain, they said.

If the staff was un-cooperative, in a pleasant kind of way, the patients were aghast at seeing "that man on the telly" face-to-face. Yvonne Slydel, trying to recover from the "heeby jeebies" in the accident and emergency department, found her bed surrounded by 20-strong posse from the media. One man was barely able to make out what was going on from behind a large plaster which obscured most of his face. And there was poor Alan Smith, who had been rushed in with a "personal problem", but found himself suddenly mobbed.

There was also a small child to be patted. Cinnamon Aylen, three-and- half-year-old victim of a chip pan fire, was keeping her voting intentions to herself. Indeed she quite rightly refused to say anything.

In the hospital cafe two old ladies were impressed by the 56-year-old Mr Ashdown's head of hair. "Kept it well, he has," one said. The Liberal Democrat leader took the opportunity to consult some physiotherapists about an old skiing injury he had sustained on his thumb. They seemed to think the hurt sustained was small beer and they took only a professional interest in his problem.

One women patient showed Mr Ashdown her "bad knee" and waved a St Christopher medallion at him. She was, she said, a pianist who supported Mr Ashdown, but who also gave fundraising concerts for David Mellor, radio presenter, former minister and sitting Tory MP in the constituency.

Then briefly to Hampton Hill Junior School, where Mr Ashdown became a kind of Pied Piper of Hamlyn figure, pursued by children around the playground. "How are you off for equipment?" Mr Ashdown asked the headteacher, William Jerman. "Quite well off really," replied the head. Not quite the required response. Don't doctors, nurses and teachers realise how badly off they are?

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