Ashdown faces Scottish rebellion

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The Independent Online
The prospect of an unquestioning welcome for Paddy Ashdown today as he addresses the annual conference of the Scottish Liberal Democrats disappeared yesterday when the Scottish rank and file claimed their party's MPs were being 'conned' by the Prime Minister.

An emergency motion that is likely to receive overwhelming support will be debated before Mr Ashdown's speech. It urges Liberal Democrat MPs to 'vote in the ways best calculated to bring down the Government'.

The last-ditch attempt to convince Mr Ashdown and the Liberal Democrat leadership that backing the Government in next's Wednesday's Common's Maastricht vote would not be welcomed by the majority of party members was forwarded by Donald Gorrie, the party's candidate in Edinburgh South at the general election.

Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, later sought to damp down fears of MPs reneging on the party's promise to support the Prime Minister next week. 'Liberal Democrats will vote in favour of Britain's future in Europe,' he said in a statement.

The emergency motion states that 'the greatest single requirement for the democratic, economic and moral recovery of the country is the defeat and replacement of the Conservative government in an early general election'.

It claims that the best interests of the European Community would be better served by a new British government that was 'wholeheartedly committed to Britain's full participation in a truly democratic EC'. Mr Gorrie described the Conservatives as a 'split party wangling compromises on every European issue'.

The potential division and conflict - that may be taken as a signal by the rest of Britain's Liberal Democrats to commence a similar revolt - will be the first time Mr Ashdown has encountered party division since the name-change debacle of the then Social and Liberal Democrats.

Jim Wallace, the leader of the party's Scottish federation, told delegates that 'if a genuine opportunity arises to remove the Tories from office, we will take it'.

The problem for both Mr Wallace and Mr Ashdown is that their party's definition of what is 'genuine' may be different from their own.