Ashdown and Blair 'dreamt of coalition'

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Tony Blair is prepared for more attacks from sections of his own party this week with the publication of Paddy Ashdown's diaries. According to close allies of the former Liberal Democrat leader, the diaries describe in detail several meetings with Mr Blair in which the two leaders discussed the desirability of a coalition between the two parties.

Tony Blair is prepared for more attacks from sections of his own party this week with the publication of Paddy Ashdown's diaries. According to close allies of the former Liberal Democrat leader, the diaries describe in detail several meetings with Mr Blair in which the two leaders discussed the desirability of a coalition between the two parties.

Mr Ashdown's friends say the two leaders went as far as agreeing that two other Liberal Democrat MPs, Menzies Campbell and Alan Beith, would be included in the Cabinet if a coalition was formed. One ally who attended some of the meetings says that Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown had very similar views "bound by a vision of turning Britain into a 'modern European country'".

In their early meetings "they dreamed their dreams", but in the run-up to the 1997 election there were serious discussions about a coalition government. The two of them spoke even on election day, before the scale of Labour's win was known.

One source close to Mr Ashdown suggests that the most revealing aspect of the diaries is the number of people involved in what has become known as "the project". Mr Blair's close friend Derry Irvine, now Lord Chancellor, was a pivotal figure, hosting several dinners.

More widely the diaries will stress the importance of developments in Scotland where the two parties worked closely in the run-up to the 1997 election. "Robin Cook [the Foreign Secretary], Donald Dewar [the late First Minister of Scotland], even George Robertson [now Nato secretary-general] play important parts," say Ashdown's friends.

The vivid account, following the book by Geoffrey Robinson, former paymaster-general, which highlighted divisions at the top of the Cabinet, is likely to create fresh tensions. Chancellor Gordon Brown and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott are firm opponents of the "project", while Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson is a keen supporter.

The diaries end with the election in 1997, but Mr Ashdown has more recent material which he plans to publish after the next election.

Mr Blair plans to ride out the storm by making no comment this week. "He never comments on private meetings," said Downing Street.

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