Blair-bashing may lead to warmer embrace

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The Independent Online
Nobody should be too distracted by the Blair-bashing in Glasgow this week. Given that Mr Ashdown is addressing three audiences - the electorate, his own activists and Mr Blair- he performed a fairly skilful balancing act on Tuesday.

There are those who wish he was not quite so cautious about embracing Labour and who point out that for every councillor at the conference who is locked in combat with a distinctly old-Labour town hall regime there is another happily co-operating with Labour in joint control of a council.

But Mr Ashdown's step-by-step approach has not served him badly in an electoral year which saw the Liberal Democrats become the second-biggest party in local government, end "equidistance" between the two main parties - and then swiftly go on to demonstrate that in Littleborough and Saddleworth it could still win a by-election against Labour. If the Liberal Democrats were going to be wiped out by Mr Blair's new Labour Party before the election it would have happened by now. And it hasn't.

But step-by-step approach to what? Where is this all going? One possible subject for early talks is the one raised this week by Charles Kennedy - joint discussions on what he rightly called the "devilishly difficult" mechanics of pushing through even those elements of constitutional reform on which the parties already agree - notably Scottish devolution (where the two parties have already agreed the size of a Scottish Parliament and a system for electing it) and a Bill of Rights. There are grave doubts about how formal these should be. If the teams were to be fully representative they would have to include Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary and Bob Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat president. Since each is a deep-dyed sceptic about co-operation wouldn't it be much more practical to have, say Archie Kirkwood, Mr Ashdown's chief whip, and, say, fellow Scot Donald Dewar, the current hot tip as Labour chief whip, and a man who knows the Scottish Lib Dems well? At the same time there could be quiet chats through business managers about joint planning of Commons Opposition Day motions to maximise pressure on the Government.

So far, so good. The earth will not have moved. Nor will it before the general election. A further nudge is possible towards tactical voting before the election. Frank Field, the Birkenhead MP, was freelancing when he suggested on Tuesday that in West Country seats where Liberal Democrats are the only serious anti-Tory challenger it makes sense for Labour supporters to vote for them. At one extreme Mr Blair, conscious of the need for Liberal Democrat successes to deliver him an overall majority could do a Frank Field a week before polling day. Seen from Glasgow the more likely scenario is that it will merely become increasingly obvious that Mr Blair is not exactly spending millions on advertising in the West Country Liberal Democrat strongholds.

It is after polling day that calculations become much more complicated, options much more open. Even if there is a hung Parliament do not assume that Mr Blair will immediately offer seats at the Cabinet table to Mr Ashdown and one or two of his colleagues - or that they would automatically accept if he did. He might decide running a minority government and calling a second election might be the better strategy.

Mr Ashdown might decide that holding out for a Blair decision in favour of proportional representation and remaining in "constructive opposition" offers an altogether bigger prize than a ministerial Rover and a footnote in history - especially since coalitions have a tendency to unravel rather fast in countries with first-past-the post voting systems. There will be serious tensions in the Lib Dems over what to do. On the one hand what Mr Blair irritated some senior Lib Dems by calling the Social Democratic tendency last weekend might well defect to Labour if Mr Ashdown did not fully back Labour. On the other, minority partners in coalitions frequently take the blame for failure.

Mr Blair is clearly serious about offering talks with the Liberal Democrats even if he wins an overall majority. That isn't so surprising. It turns out that Neil Kinnock had resolved to do the same if he had won in 1992. And even if Mr Blair wasn't a pluralist, it makes good sense to do so. If he had a majority of 20 it would make a lot of sense to have Paddy Ashdown's endorsement of his premiership in the country - and his backing in the division lobbies in case of left-wing rebellion.

In the meantime, Mr Ashdown enjoys a sufficiently cordial personal relationship with Mr Blair to overcome the anti-Labour rhetoric of this week. They met for discussion on a wide range of topics at the beginning the recess. They had talks as the Government started to shift on Nolan and Mr Ashdown let Mr Blair know that he was breaking with equidistance in May. But he holds the ring between the vanguardists of co-operation like Charles Kennedy and those, like Bob Maclennan and Malcolm Bruce who are resistant. And so far, at least, his strategy seems to have worked.