Launching Making Change Our Ally, his personal agenda for the future, Mr Ashdown said he liked Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and had a high respect for his abilities, although he claimed the Labour leader was 'five years behind'. He said: 'I believe both Britain and the Liberal Democrats will prosper . . . if the Labour Party comes on to our agenda.'
Despite that qualification, the implicit backing for Mr Blair - which raises questions over how long Mr Ashdown can maintain his stance of 'equidistance' from the two main parties - risks angering some of the Liberal Democrat grassroots. The rank and file is frequently involved in political slanging matches with Labour at local government level.
But an 'electable' Labour Party would allow erstwhile Tory supporters to vote Liberal Democrat with confidence, in parliamentary seats Labour cannot win in a general election.
Mr Ashdown's replies to prolonged questioning during a Westminster news conference stop well short, however, of a declaration that his party would join forces with Labour in the event of a hung Parliament.
Liberal Democrat sources emphasised that Mr Ashdown's pamphlet was not a panic reaction to Mr Blair. But he accepted that while his party had succeeded in setting out its stall on constitutional change and environmental issues, 'we must now make very clear our position on the economy and public services'.
Six key areas spotlighted in the pamphlet, and by Mr Ashdown, are: commitment to a competitive, enterprising but flexible market economy; building on, rather than rejecting, Tory education and health changes but making services democratic and accountable; and making the position on Europe clear, including that Britain would be part of a single currency. He also wants to see a wholehearted commitment to political reform, including greater recourse to referenda, particularly at local level; 'hypothecation' (earmarking) of taxes; incorporating the environment into every area of policy, particularly the economy; and adopting a strongly internationalist stance on foreign affairs.
The pamphlet speaks of 'tough decisions . . . as rising health care costs come up against the finite limits of public resources'. It reflects Labour's approach to education with the notion of 'education contracts' but goes further than Labour on law and order by suggesting parents of delinquent children should be obliged to help put them 'back on track' by enforcing curfews.
A warning by Tony Blair to the Shadow Cabinet today not to be complacent will be underpinned by a new opinion poll showing a hefty fall in the party's lead. An ICM/Guardian poll shows Labour's 'adjusted' lead has fallen from 21 per cent to 12 per cent since August. The new figures show the Tories up five points at 33 per cent, Labour at 45, and the Liberal Democrats at 18. The adjustments are made to allow for the relative reluctance of Tories to take part in polls.