Ashdown's crusade - will Lib-Dems follow?

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The Independent Online
Liberal Democrat MPs have been ushered into a secret meeting to read Paddy Ashdown's radical strategy to take them into a new,closer relationship with Labour. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, describes a bold political gamble to reshape British politics.

The Liberal Democrats are to be offered a "double lock" to protect them from being led into a full-blown coalition with the Labour government in a strategy paper which Paddy Ashdown is to put to the party's rank and file.

But he has decided to lead his party forward to a closer alliance with Tony Blair - in spite of widespread unrest about the Government's threats to the welfare state - in order to secure the modernisation of the British constitution, and a fairer voting system for the Commons.

To allay the fears of his own party, he promised that any change in the strategy of "constructive opposition" could only be made with the agreement of both the Liberal Democrat MPs and party activists. But he is determined to press on with closer relations with Labour, possibly leading to coalition after the next general election.

"The key is PR [proportional representation]. That is likely to lead to shared government in Scotland. It would be very odd, if we said it was acceptable in Scotland but not in England," said one of the MPs who approved the document.

Mr Ashdown's careful diplomacy won over doubters who have been attacking Labour for failing to spend more money on public services. Coalition was not mentioned in the document, but Mr Ashdown has told close friends that a seat in the Blair cabinet was on offer before the election. When Labour had a landslide victory, both he and the Prime Minister agreed this was not appropriate and he suggested to Mr Blair that the Liberal Democrats should join a cabinet committee on constitutional reform.

In spite of their weekly clashes over Prime Minister's questions in the Commons, Mr Ashdown and Mr Blair have privately agreed that a historic objective must be to ensure that the modernising project for British politics is safely in place before they step down.

The Liberal Democrat leader was contemplating confronting his party critics at the spring conference in Southport but has been strongly advised to adopt a more consensual approach. The sensitivity in the party over the possibility of a coalition with Labour is widespread and so great that Mr Ashdown's strategy paper was shown to the 46 Liberal Democrat MPs in conditions of considerable secrecy.

The MPs were shown the documents at a day-long strategy conference with the party leader at the Ismaili Centre in Kensington, west London. They were allowed to read numbered copies, which they had to hand back at the end of the meeting. His strategy will be put up for approval in a draft resolution which The Independent has obtained.