Ashdown shifts his party towards Labour

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The Independent Online
PADDY ASHDOWN last night opened the way to a historic shift in British politics by holding out the prospect that the Liberal Democrats could declare a clear preference for a Labour-led government before the next election.

Mr Ashdown's promise - to a rally in Brighton on the eve of the party conference - that he did not 'rule out co-operation for the common good if we find that there are others of like mind' came hours after a news conference in which he declared that John Major's Conservative government was 'failed and dangerous', and added: 'I want to see if I can kick it out.'

His comments, while cautious and qualified, allow the party to debate ending its stance of 'equidistance' between the two main parties. It follows calls yesterday by two of the party's most senior figures, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and Simon Hughes MP, for the party to state it would not prop up a minority Tory government in a hung parliament. There were signs that Mr Ashdown was irritated with the unequivocal remarks of Lord Jenkins and Mr Hughes, and he refused invitations at a news conference yesterday to signal a preference now.

But this is a turning point. During the 1992 election, Mr Ashdown was pointedly neutral. Last night, despite emphasising that his party was an independent 'third force' in politics, his speech left little doubt about his personal preference. Mr Ashdown is aware of grass-roots opposition to 'cuddling up' to Labour; a backlash by the rank and file was evident yesterday. For that reason party managers will try to delay a final decision until after May's local elections.

Conference reports, page 4

Leading article, page 17

Worry for Tories, page 19

Dear Robert Maclennan, page 21