Ashdown's Angels want a two-wheel nation

John Rentoul on a Lib-Dem attempt to give clean commuting a kick- start
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The Liberal Democrats yesterday made a bold pitch for the Hell's Angel vote with plans to encourage the use of motorcycles, and a call to abolish VAT on tough leather jackets.

David "Easy Rider" Chidgey, previously regarded as one of Westminster's less charismatic politicians, revealed himself as a rebel without a cause in a photocall with bikers and their bikes outside party HQ.

The Liberal Democrat transport spokesman and MP for Eastleigh had to admit he did not own a bike himself, but praised the "positive contribution motorcycles can offer in reducing pollution and congestion".

He said the party's plans to cut vehicle excise duty and raise tax on petrol would encourage more people to use "low-polluting, fuel-efficient" motorcycles (and mopeds) as an alternative to cars, especially for commuting.

A consultation paper published yesterday also called for British Standards for the safety of protective clothing. The proposals included "considering the removal of VAT from items such as leather jackets and gloves if they meet rigorous safety standards", Mr Chidgey said.

He took up a cause close to the heart of better-informed bikers by opposing European Commission plans to reduce the noise limit for motorcycle exhausts from 82 to 80 decibels. The document saw "little point" in further legislation "while existing laws are ineffective", and called for stronger measures to enforce the present limit.

Mr Chidgey, attempting a Marlon Brando sneer, dismissed Brussels officialdom: "The European Commission seems obsessed with issuing directives which curtail choice and are potentially harmful to local economies. Their draft directives on motorcycles are a major threat to the UK motorcycle industry and should be sent back to the drawing board. They should stick to the priorities of their core objectives - the freedom of movement of people, goods and services."

The Liberal Democrats failed to back the full "ride free" manifesto by supporting the law on the compulsory wearing of helmets but adopted a libertarian stance on other middle-aged concerns. Leg protectors, air bags and protective clothing should be "an optional choice for the rider", the document said.

Bikers of the world, predictably, united. Neil Liversidge, national chairman of the Motorcycle Action Group, said: "MAG is delighted that a major political party has recognised the essential part which motorcycles have to play in future transport policy."

A spokesman for the RAC said: "The safety and environmental improvements Mr Chidgey argues for will help confirm the motorcycle's role in an integrated transport policy."

Or, as David Steel never said, "Go back to your constituencies and put on your leathers".