Liberals cry foul as macho Major kicks Paddy `the pimple' Ashdown in the pants

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NO WONDER Paddy Ashdown, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, dislikes the Commons style of debate. Of the three main party leaders he, alone, has to speak from the benches rather than the dispatch box. He is the last to be called and, when he does put his question to the Prime Minister, he goes without a right of reply.

As if that were not enough, Mr Ashdown faces a battery of abuse and put- downs from John Major. Last week, when he questioned the Prime Minister's version of events at the Madrid EU summit, the Prime Minister responded in spectacularly disparaging style: "Oh, the right honourable gentleman shakes his head. He was there, was he? It was he who brought in the tea, coffee and biscuits."

Mr Ashdown's office argues that when the Prime Minister deploys an "angry or insulting style, it does nothing for his reputation or appeal". Certainly Mr Major's Commons exchanges with Mr Ashdown expose avicious streak in a man who, for all his low poll ratings, is still regarded by the public as decent, honest and civilised.

In February he answered an Ashdown question about cuts in school budgets: "As ever, the right honourable gentleman has his facts wrong. Perhaps next time he asks a question, he will have ascertained some of those facts before doing so."

In March he was no less brutal. Mr Ashdown asked about the sale of electricity shares just before the announcement of a review by the electricity regulator. "The right honourable gentleman is not a distinguished lawyer," said Mr Major, alluding to Mr Blair (who once practised as a barrister). "If he lets fly like that I hope that he is never sitting down where he has to take a cool, calm decision of what is in the national interest."

Nor even on Bosnia, where Mr Ashdown can draw on first-hand knowledge as well as his own military experience, does he receive much house-room from Mr Major. In October, harried over the fall of Srebrenica, Mr Major replied: "I think that the right honourable gentlemanmight do the British forces and the British government the credit of acknowledging what they have done. What he is saying is not correct. He has been wrong throughout the whole of this episode. He has denigrated what the British government has done and what the British forces have done."

What lies behind this barrage of abuse? The two men do not get on, although they maintain civilities when Mr Ashdown goes to Downing Street for occasional briefings. Mr Ashdown, the former Royal Marine, presents himself as a strong leader and seeks to highlight Mr Major's weakness in the face of a divided party. Mr Major sees this as posturing from a man who has no prospect of becoming Prime Minister. One Major ally, asked last week to characterise Mr Ashdown, said: "He's no Jo Grimond or Jeremy Thorpe. He's a pimple on the buttock of the body politic."

The Liberal Democrats see displays of vitriol from Mr Major as a sign that they are getting under his skin. Although they are puzzled by the personal nature of the exchanges, they think their leader has put his finger on a few Tory nerves.

However, there is also an element of kicking the cat about Mr Major's act. Often beleaguered, Mr Major knows that picking on the Liberal Democrats will be popular with his backbenchers and many Labour MPs too. Tory MPs see the Liberal Democrat leader as a man with pretensions, never more so than when he speaks on foreign policy. "Ashdown oozes sanctimony," said one Conservative MP, "and he goes big on Bosnia. What's this pissy little party doing going on about Bosnia?"

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have established a formidable hold over local government in areas of Tory strength. They have not always endeared themselves in local politics. As one Tory put it: "They play very dirty while pretending to be holier than thou." But they remain a threat in southern seats where the Liberal Democrats lie in second place to the Tories.

Mr Ashdown's decision to jettison "equi-distance" - his stance of neutrality between the two main parties - means he is fair game for the Tories. Where once there was some ambiguity about the third party's instincts in a hung Parliament, now it is clear they would never back a Major government.

And there are signs of increasing co-operation between Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown at Prime Minister's Questions. While Liberal Democrat sources stress there is no formalised co-operation, the "usual channels" between the Ashdown and Blair offices sometimes co-ordinate a joint attack on Mr Major.

Perhaps the most important factor is that the Conservatives are well- practised at attacking the Liberal Democrats, while their line against Mr Blair is causing more problems.

As one senior Tory put it: "We know how to nail the Lib Dems. We accuse them of duplicity, of saying one thing to one person, something else to another. We attack them for the politics of symbolism. There is a clear line of attack. With Blair it's not yet so easy."