Ashdown to reshape team to face Blair: Liberal Democrats aim for sharp contrast with Labour 'vagueness'

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Indy Politics
Party challenges Tory win in court

THE Liberal Democrats are to press ahead with a legal move to overturn the European election result in Devon & East Plymouth which they claim they lost because thousands voted by mistake for a 'Literal' Democrat candidate, writes Patricia Wynn Davies.

An election petition will be issued against Frank Palmer, the returning officer, and Giles Chichester, the Tory who polled 74,953 votes to take the seat with a 700 majority. Richard Huggett, the 'Literal' Democrat, polled 10,203 votes, and Adrian Sanders, the Liberal Democrat, 74,253. Graham Elson, the party's general secretary, said: 'We have been overwhelmed by the sense of outrage expressed by the voters.'

PADDY ASHDOWN is to carry out a wide-ranging reshuffle of the top Liberal Democrat jobs in the next few weeks in the wake of the party's patchy performance in the European elections.

Alan Beith, the party's current Treasury spokesman, is expected to be given a different role in a big and long planned shake-up of the parliamentary party which will also take into account the likely accession of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party.

Menzies Campbell, the party's defence spokesman and one of the dominant figures among the party's MPs after Mr Ashdown and Mr Beith, his deputy, is expected to win promotion. And the number of economic spokesmen is to be increased.

The party is determined to use the period between now and the party conference to press home a 'core message' that it is a 'distinctive, independent and steadily growing force in Britain'.

Not surprisingly, senior Liberal Democrats believe that both their opponents and a number of commentators have underestimated the degree of success spelt by their securing two West Country seats, Cornwall and Somerset.

Mr Ashdown's analysis of the 17 per cent national share of the vote - well down on both the party's opinion poll ratings and its local election performance - is that it is well in line with the party's consistent 'underpolling' in European elections compared with local and general elections.

The factors behind this phenomenon - which resulted in a 19 per cent vote in the 1984 European elections compared with 27.5 per cent in the 1983 general election - are said to include the virtual absence of tactical voting in large Euro-constituencies; and the difficulties that the most pro-European party has in a national electorate that has taken a marked turn towards Euro-scepticism.

They also believe that the party's success in securing two seats on a 17 per cent share of the vote - compared with none on a 19 per cent share in 1984 - is a spectacular success for the party's targeting strategy in building a 'citadel' in the South-west which should arouse deep fear among Tories in well over a dozen parliamentary seats in the region. 'No one ever said we were going to make a breakthrough in one step,' one senior source insisted yesterday.

Although Mr Ashdown has rejected in post-mortems with colleagues the inference that the Liberal Democrats are fighting as a quasi-regional party, senior Liberal Democrats acknowledge in private that they did not expect the Labour vote to show such signal increases in middle England and the South.

But the party sources insist that Mr Ashdown is more sanguine about the threat posed by a Blair- led party than Labour, Tory and some independent analysts suggest he should be. To the extent that Mr Blair is 'vague' by avoiding specific policy commitments, Mr Ashdown is said to argue, it will help the Liberal Democrats to claw back support in the South by being delivering a 'sharper' message.

He regards his pledge of 'full employability' to be more realistic than the 'full employment' goal espoused by the Labour leadership contenders. He is expected to argue in the coming weeks that while a government can provide quality training it is 'fraudulent' to promise that it can provide jobs.

To the extent that Mr Blair is 'cuddly', the sources say, it could help the Liberal Democrats, for example in the South-west, by removing the fear among potential Tory defectors that by voting Liberal Democrat they may be helping to elect a Labour government that they cannot accept.

Mr Ashdown's speeches will stress that welfare should provide 'hand-ups' rather than hand-outs and that economic policy should stimulate 'enterprise'.