Election '97: Pastries, punks and pep talks ... on the road with Tony, John and Paddy: Barrie Clement with Paddy Ashdown

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The Independent Online
The Paddywagon began to roll last Monday - several days after the larger caravans of the main protagonists had already moved off. In the last five days we have covered around 3,000 miles by coach and by air, eaten several kilos of sandwiches together with a daily dose of Danish pastry courtesy of Titan Airlines.

The media posse on the battle bus is not as large as it was. The Financial Times has baled out and the Guardian makes only cameo appearances. Yesterday there were just 12 reporters, whereas 40 are accredited.

Unlike his cardboard cut-out rivals, Mr Ashdown is accessible and approachable. Presumably that is because he hasn't got a cat in hell's chance of becoming Prime Minister and can say what he likes without forensic examination by political journalists searching for inconsistencies.

Not that you would know that from listening to him. When he speaks, he will routinely use the phrases "we will" and "what we will do" in reference to the political decisions a Liberal Democrat government would take. This is fantasy politics, but it is fun.

It can also be hectic. On Thursday, the usual 8am press conference was followed by a trip through east London to the City airport in Docklands. From there, we flew in our smallish ATR42 turbo-prop aircraft to Edinburgh for an 11.30 press conference where Mr. Ashdown "put a kilt" on his politics. Then a sports college at noon where students were seen punishing themselves on treadmills and a group of pensioners frolicked in the swimming pool.

Thence to the Scottish borders for a pastoral interlude at a farm near Galashiels.

Back to Edinburgh, from where we flew to an out-of-season Southport, "a poor man's Blackpool", by some accounts.

There, Mr Ashdown preached animatedly to the converted. Not so much "go out there and prepare for government", as "don't listen to the polls, go out and grab a few votes".

Back on the coach at 8.15pm for a 9.30pm flight from Manchester to Stansted and a coach back to central London, where we arrived at 11.30. Mr Ashdown had already been whisked in a helicopter back from Southport to London for a television appearance. And yesterday, a press conference at 8am ... and so on. Even the super-fit Lib-Dem leader admitted on the coach out to Northolt airfield that he was "knackered".

By all accounts the Paddywagon has a far more agreeable atmosphere than the battle buses of the Lib-Dems' rivals. Mr Ashdown regularly briefs journalists, although he spends most of his time in a small compartment at the back of the coach.

There is a sweet little armchair for him to sit in and a television. Journalists are welcomed to the inner sanctum for one-to-one interviews, where Mr. Ashdown is "minded" by Ian Wright, an amiable "travelling press officer."

It is the life of a political gypsy. Only 20 days to go.