Ashdown holds line for Lib Dems in the South-west

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Indy Politics

When Lord Ashdown was drafted in to fight a rearguard action to rescue Liberal Democrat heartlands in the South-west from a Tory onslaught, it seemed he had met his match.

The Conservatives looked set to take as many as nine seats from his party in the region, an electoral catastrophe that would almost certainly have seen the party's presence in the Commons shrink for the first time in its history.

But as the former Liberal Democrat leader headed to his third campaign stop yesterday, Lord Ashdown mused on what Nick Clegg should do in the case of a hung parliament.

"I have always said the important development in British politics was the creation of a centre-left force. But when it comes to the hard, practical business of governing, you've got to look at the mathematics, ask what provides sensible government for the country and in what circumstances can we get across the things we believe in. It's a very hard-headed decision. It's not based on emotion," he said.

"The proof is in the eating. There are all sorts of coalitions around the country. Around 60 per cent are Lib Dem and Labour. Around 40 per cent are Lib Dem and Tories. It's got to be judged on what is in the nation's interests first, and secondly, what is in the interests of your party."

Following Mr Clegg's debate performance, Lord Ashdown has been ensuring complacency does not set in. "You need a bit of fat going into the last week of a campaign. I think what is within our reach, and I will say no more than that, is our best ever result – our record result," he said. "Up until about last weekend, I was quite worried that something irrational was happening out there – a spasm. But this last week, things have settled down. This is beginning to look like the stable shape of the outcome."

Yesterday, he was helping David Heath, the MP defending the Somerton and Frome constituency, achieve just that. After visiting a cattle market and a hydro-powered mill, the pair headed to a chocolate factory, whose produce must have tasted all the sweeter for Mr Heath following the party's improved fortunes.

A slender 0.8 per cent swing to the Tories would see his ultra-marginal, 800 majority swallowed up.

While Lord Ashdown heaped praise on Mr Clegg for reinvigorating the party, he admitted there were dangers in the leader revealing he would not back Gordon Brown as prime minister if Labour came third in the election. "Is there a danger? Of course," he said. "If you get yourself into hung parliament territory, the world is full of dangers."