Politics: Lib Dem strategy on tour

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The Independent Online
Paddy Ashdown is about to launch a `meet the people' tour to establish the Liberal Democrats' strategy for the next five years. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says some senior Liberal Democrat MPs want to see their party replace the Tories as the party of Opposition. Mr Ashdown disagrees.

Paddy Ashdown is planning to sound out his party members on the strategy for the Liberal Democrats and their relations with the Labour Party, which could put his leadership of the party on the line in the New Year.

His consultation of the party will culminate in a debate on a strategy paper at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Southport.

Mr Ashdown is adamant that the Liberal Democrats should not be attempting to replace the Tories as the main party of Opposition. But several of his senior Liberal Democrat MPs disagree, arguing that the Liberal Democrats are out-performing the Tories at Westminster and should be poised to capitalise on the advantage in seats across the country. Mr Ashdown has told friends that the Liberal Democrats can never attempt to replace the Tories as a right-of-centre party.

The debate carries high risks for the leader if he fails to carry his party with him. It also goes to the heart of the Lib Dem role at Westminster in challenging Labour while remaining members of the Cabinet committee on the Constitution.

One of his senior colleagues said: "We are riding two horses." That has irritated Tony Blair who recently ridiculed Mr Ashdown's policy of putting 1p on income tax to pay for higher spending as "the longest pee in history".

The Liberal Democrat MPs believe the row over cuts in the welfare state has reinforced for their case for building their strength as an opposition party, outside the embrace of the Labour leadership.

Mr Ashdown will start the tour without his chief press officer, Sean O'Grady, who is leaving after only four months in the job. "It's just not worked out," said a Liberal Democrat source.