Election '97: Ashdown on course for rerun of Lloyd George days

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The Independent Online
The Liberal Democrats were last night set to celebrate the best result of any third party since the 1930s and the days of David Lloyd George.

Paddy Ashdown's aides believed they were heading for an "historic breakthrough" which meant they would form a strong rival Opposition to the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats were predicting that they would win between 35 and 40 seats when all results were in compared with 26 last time. Their last highest peak was 59 in 1929.

Mr Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leaders, said that if early indications were correct, his party would have doubled its support from 9 per cent to 18 since the campaign began. Mr Ashdown said that such a level of national support would be an "extremely good result". However last night it seemed that the party had done particularly well in target seats where they were a close second to the Conservatives in 1992.

Speaking from his Yeovil constituency, the Liberal Democrat leader said he was confident that his party's position would be strengthened. He said: "We have put a very clear message to the electorate and they have responded to it."

While Labour celebrated at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank and the Conservatives gathered at Tory headquarters, the Liberal Democrats gathered at a Hyde Park pizza parlour were cheering Tony Blair to victory.

Early predictions said the Lib Dems could win as many as 45 seats, a figure the veteran politician Shirley Williams agreed with. She said it would be "the best result since the Second World War" and the much- awaited breakthrough.

"I think the people have terribly underestimated the level of support for us and it is still rising," she said.

"What's clear to me from going round the country where there are Lib Dem county councils for the last four or five years the argument of the wasted vote has gone away ... our support will grow and grow. Now we are a serious formidable third party."

She said that the extended election campaign might have been as "boring as hell" but it had worked in the Lib Dem favour by making them better known.

The Tory defector, Emma Nicholson, said the poll showed the great lack of support for the government. She said she was "delighted" that the public "had seen through the Conservatives ... corruption has flourished like weeds in a field. It's truly horrific. I said as much as I could when I left."

Earlier, Paddy Ashdown had arrived at his polling station in Norton sub Hamdon, Somerset. The couple cast a proxy vote for their 31-year- old daughter who lives in France. Mr Ashdown has a notional 14.8 per cent majority over his nearest - Tory - rival.