Lib Dem Conference: Michael Brown's notebook - Last stand for the old regime

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Paddy Ashdown's day at Harrogate yesterday as the Liberal Democrat faithful heard him bid an emotional farewell during a speech that ended without a dry eye in the house. Delegates eschewed their normal reserve, even giving him an unheard-of standing ovation at the beginning.

"You wouldn't have done that if I had stayed," Mr Ashdown said, before hamming it up with a joke at the expense of John Prescott: "Memorable Prescott pronouncement 178: `The green belt was a Labour idea and we are determined to build on it'."

MUCH SPECULATION surrounds Paddy Ashdown's future. But Charles Kennedy's aides claim that Bill Clinton was disappointed that Mr Ashdown did not get the United Nations special envoy post in Kosovo. Mr Clinton saw Mr Ashdown's regular contributions in the Commons during the Kosovo crisis, on the American channel C-Span, and observed: "He's got what it takes."

A LARGE crowd of journalists and camera crews was on hand outside Harrogate District Hospital to cover the new leader's visit. One patient nipped outside to ask what all the fuss was about. "We are covering Charles Kennedy's visit," he was told by The Independent's photographer John Voos. "Oh good. I do so like his violin-playing," replied the patient, thinking that Nigel Kennedy was in concert at the conference centre.

RUMOURS OF MR Kennedy's supposedly easy-going, lazy nature came to an abrupt end when party bigwigs were forced to abandon a grand City of London Corporation dinner to attend the leader's daily debriefing in the Majestic Hotel at 10pm.

Lord Razzall, the party treasurer, and Jane Bonham-Carter, a leadership adviser, spent the whole evening clock-watching, terrified of being late for their audience with Mr Kennedy. Party bosses expecting an easy late- night unwinding at the ITN champagne party were kept late by Mr Kennedy working on the next day's conference business. Harassed officials have quickly learnt that Mr Kennedy is not quite the cuddly bunny they had previously imagined.

EVEN Politico's bookshop paid its own tribute to Mr Ashdown by discreetly removing from display items from its range of men's underpants emblazoned with political slogans. While "I like the size of your majority" was still on sale, "Pantsdown" briefs and trunks had been hidden under the counter. Delegates wanting to purchase them were handed the illicit underwear in brown paper bags. Sales, however, were still said to be "brisk".