Lib Dems step back from the brink

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THE Liberal Democrats last night pulled back from the brink of a political chasm by throwing out a motion to abolish the monarchy.

The respite for Paddy Ashdown came as the leadership struggled to reassert control of the party conference after being defeated for the second time in 24 hours.

The conference approved a motion seeking a 'radical trimming' of the pounds 10m Civil List, but clearly defeated one from the party's youth and students section which sought the replacement of the monarch by an elected president when the present Queen's reign ends.

The decision came at the end of another difficult day for Mr Ashdown which had begun with the conference approving a minimum wage rate policy - against the explicit and well-publicised advice of the leader and his 22 fellow-MPs.

In a plea to party members not to compound the embarrasment already felt by Mr Ashdown over Monday's vote for cannabis to be decriminalised, Archie Kirkwood, the chief whip, told the conference: 'The party has got to become a bit more politically streetwise in dealing with these issues. The stakes are too high and we should not concede any hostages to fortune.'

The motion which was approved requires a review of the role of the 10 members of the Royal Family other than the Queen and was taken by party members as implying a radical reduction in their funding by the taxpayer.

The low pay proposal approved yesterday was strongly promoted by Baroness Williams of Crosby and, while providing for regional variation, brings the party much more closely in to line with Labour's low pay policy than the party's leadership had wanted.

Mr Ashdown, who has strongly defended a milder proposal for a Low Pay Commission to investigate complaints of underpayment, said tersely after the debate that the conference had not backed his preferred option. But he added: 'The party has spoken and it will become party policy.'

The motion came on the eve of possible further dissent today, when delegates will have the chance to criticise a call by the Treasury spokesman, Malcolm Bruce, for a planned higher tax rate of 60p to be reduced to 50p.

Concern among some of Mr Ashdown's senior colleagues that he may have overreacted to the defeats was reflected when his predecessor, Sir David Steel, declared in a BBC radio interview that: 'It is part of the cross you have to bear. Perhaps Paddy takes it a little too seriously and too severely. I don't think he should regard it as a personal slight or politically upsetting.'

Amid further indications that senior Liberal Democrats, including Mr Ashdown, are beginning to consider seriously the terms and potential for closer co-operation with Labour, Sir David also added his voice to those pressing for the party to state a clear preference for Labour over the Tories.

He declared the public mood was for a change in government, and added: 'We've got to portray ourselves as potentially part of that new government . . . rather than have it controlled by the union influence which is still there in the Labour Party, or by the left wing.' Sir David said the Liberal Democrats would have leverage over Labour by 'continuing to show that we can take on the Tories in seats that the Labour Party can't win'.

Conference reports, page 8

Leading article, page 17

Andrew Marr, page 19

(Photograph omitted)