Election '97 : Ashdown: 'We are a grandfather'

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Paddy Ashdown last night was able to emulate a retired party leader with the words: "We are a grandfather."

Mr Ashdown, 56, heard that his daughter Kate had given birth to a baby boy.

"Jane and I are both delighted at this news," the Liberal Democrat leader said before a rally in Cardiff. Mother and baby were said to be well last night in north Burgundy, France, where Kate and her French husband Sebastian live.

At the rally, however, Mr Ashdown got back to business. Having refused during the campaign to attack other party leaders personally, he offered the Prime Minister his pity instead.

The increasingly buoyant Liberal Democrat leader said he felt "genuinely sorry "for John Major. He was a decent man trying desperately to lead an "impossible party" riven with turmoil over Europe.

Mr Ashdown referred to the "sad spectacle" of the Prime Minister being forced to dedicate the whole of a party political broadcast on Wednesday night to rebels in his own party.

In the teeth of ministerial dissent and open revolt among candidates, Mr Major urged support for his "negotiate and then decide" policy on a single currency.

Mr Ashdown said the broadcast was not targeted at 56 million people, nor even the critical "swing" voters in marginal seats, but at 600 Tory candidates.

The Liberal Democrat leader was in confident mood in the wake of national polls showing growing support for his party and the results of private surveys in Tory marginal constituencies where Liberal Democrats believe they are closing the gap.

Mr Ashdown said the Conservatives had become two parties. "In one Tory party, the few left who understand that Britain's future lies in Europe. In the other Tory party, the kind of people whose idea of a European policy is to shout louder in English. They are hopelessly divided. They are weakly led." The internal strife in the Conservative party had become the foreign policy of the British government, he said.

The hustings earlier in the day took on the air of a musical comedy as the Ashdown battle bus arrived at the shopping precinct in the middle of Hereford.

While the Australian tenor Richard Winsborough rendered his "songs of passion", Mr Ashdown encountered his first heckler of the campaign.

Clive Easton, the 49-year-old Referendum Party candidate for the constituency, pursued Mr Ashdown round the shopping centre pleading for a dialogue on Europe. Mr Easton, however, found his way barred by Liberal Democrat heavies, one of them all of 5ft 4ins.

To the strains of "Vienna City of My Dreams", Mr Easton, a British Airways 747 captain on unpaid leave, unleashed his most potent invective: "Can I please have a minute of your time?"

Eventually the agitated Mr Easton - with the help of the media - managed to speak to Mr Ashdown, who directed the Europhobe to debate the issue with the Liberal Democrat candidate in Hereford.

Mr Ashdown then swept off, leaving the lone heckler listening to the plaintive notes of "O Sole Mio".