Liberal Democrat MPs put Ashdown under pressure

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Rumblings of Liberal Democrat discontent about Paddy Ashdown's leadership are surfacing at Westminster as he prepares for a meeting tomorrow of his MPs to thrash out ways of raising his party's profile.

He has called his party's 23 MPs to a meeting at the Commons to discuss how to pull the Lib Dems out of the two-party squeeze. Some MPs are privately critical of Mr Ashdown for concentrating too much on Bosnia. "Paddy will have to get off his backside," said one who will be at the meeting..

Colleagues of Mr Ashdown said the party had failed to make headway against Labour under Tony Blair, and the Tories since the crisis over John Major's leadership began. "Paddy is looking desperate," one colleague said. Having become leader in 1989 as a youthful alternative to Neil Kinnock and Baroness Thatcher, Mr Ashdown is the longest serving of the three main party leaders at Westminster with a general election failure behind him.

There is no move to unseat him, but the annual meeting of the Liberal Democrat MPs is aimed at lifting the party's position. There are some MPs who believe the party needs to be relaunched in the summer.

The Lib-Dems want to win the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election on 27 July from the Tories to give the party a fillip, but some MPs believe Labourcould triumph.

While Mr Ashdown has a relatively strong poll showing for leadership, the Liberal Democrats are still languishing behind the Tories in the polls. A former Royal Marines officer, Mr Ashdown, nick-named "Action Man", is planning a return to Bosnia.

Friends will regard the criticism of his leadership as unfair, given the difficulties experienced by his predecessor, Sir David Steel. But the criticism could get worse as he tries to steer the party towards its new approach to Labour, by ending its traditional policy of equidistance between Labour and the Tories. Former Liberal leaders in the Lib-Dems are planning to oppose the shift in the party's attitude towards Labour, backed by Lib-Dem councillors who are fighting Labour for seats in local government.

Mr Ashdown is positioning the Lib-Dems to hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament with Labour. That could give him a powerful bargaining position, possibly as defence secretary in a Blair Cabinet supported by the Lib-Dems.

His growing nightmare is that the Liberal Democrats are being overtaken by the appeal of Mr Blair's Labour Party. SDP members who joined the Lib- Dems because they regarded Labour under Neil Kinnock as dominated by the left wing, are being wooed back to Labour. The Lib-Dems appeal to middle class voters is being overshadowed by Mr Blair, increasing Mr Ashdown's fears that his modernising wing of the party is being outflanked by Labour modernisers.