ELECTION '97 : Ashdown sets out vision of a puppet regime

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The Independent Online
Does Paddy Ashdown see himself as a string of sausages? Or perhaps he would prefer the role of crocodile? If not, a policeman, perhaps?

Mr Ashdown yesterday became the object of the most serious grilling faced by a politician in the election campaign so far.

The inquisition - masterminded by the heavyweight television journalist Vincent Hanna - was prompted by the Liberal Democrat leader's characterisation, together with a poster urging "End the Punch and Judy show," of the fractious Blair and Major as Punch and Judy. Mr Ashdown predictably saw himself as the policeman, which left open the question of which political figures would be given the part of the disagreeable reptile and the even more demanding role of the string of sausages.

It is a game one could usefully play to while away the month until the election. And while we are on the subject of puppets, who do you think was responsible for introducing this clever and colourful metaphor to the hustings?

The Liberal Democrat spin doctors claim authorship. But they neglect the fact that it was your reporter who came up with the idea. On hearing it, Nicholas South, Mr Ashdown's head of press and policy, said: "Punch and Judy eh? That's a good idea. I'll nick that."

Yesterday, Mr South was putting an entirely different spin on things. "We had prepared the Punch and Judy show for the press conference before you used the phrase. I had my tongue in my cheek when I said I'd nick it."

The key question on who would play Punch and Judy's supporting roles remain unanswered, however. Mr Ashdown, interviewed on College Green, said: "Goodness knows who would play the string of sausages and in the absence of Norman Tebbit there isn't a natural crocodile around, is there?"