Ashdown Resigns: Blair in tribute to `outstanding leader'

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TONY Blair described Paddy Ashdown last night as "one of the outstanding party leaders of his generation" and claimed that his decision to resign would not affect the party links the two had tried to forge.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister revealed that Mr Blair had been informed of the intention to quit "some time ago", adding: "The Prime Minister views Paddy Ashdown as a politician of considerable distinction who makes a major contribution to his party and country."

William Hague, the Conservative leader, said that although he had "often" disagreed with Mr Ashdown, "we have always enjoyed good personal relations". He added: "He has led the Liberals with great determination, but his strategy of becoming as close as possible to the Government is clearly failing. The effect has been to neuter the Liberals as an opposition party and to weaken the holding of the Government to account."

Mr Ashdown's predecessor, Lord Steel of Aikwood, said: "I have thought for some time that it was likely that he would go after the European elections, but I was a bit surprised when he told me. It is a very exhausting job leading a minority party."

The party's foreign affairs and defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, said he and "eight to ten" other party members had known of Mr Ashdown's decision for "some weeks". He added: "Once you have fought two general elections as leader of the third party then I think you begin to wonder."

The Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Alan Beith, said Mr Ashdown was standing down now so that he could pass on the leadership with the party in good order. "It is an enormously stronger force than ever before and it has a key position in changing the nature of Britain and British politics," he said. "That is a very powerful legacy."

Robert Maclennan, a past president of the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Ashdown "has been a long serving and highly successful leader who has taken this party to new levels of achievement". He pointed out that the party had more MPs than ever, excellent prospects in the European elections under a new proportional voting system, and more than 5,000 local councillors.

"We are as strong as this party has ever been," he said. "He can step down in the certain knowledge that he leaves us in extremely good heart."

Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "I think people are very appreciative of Paddy's work. There was an air of regret in the meeting. People were not expecting it."

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Jim Wallace, spoke of the "energy, drive and determination" that had marked Mr Ashdown's leadership. "Our success in the 1997 general election and the fact that we are now seeing much of our long-held constitution agenda coming to fruition owes much to Paddy's vision and determination," he said.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, said: "Paddy Ashdown has always shown himself to be a man of principle.

"In UK terms he leaves the Liberals much stronger than he found them, but that is not true in Scotland and this decision seems to have been made without remembering that the Scottish Liberals are about to enter the most crucial electoral contest in their history."