Election '97: A man with a mission impossible

Paddy Ashdown needs more than fly-drive charisma to woo the tactical voter, as Andy Beckett discovers

Paddy Ashdown likes to lean forward. Last Thursday, before a hot room of reporters at Exeter airport, he sat at the very edge of his chair, tilting his whole torso towards the cameras and notebooks. As Mr Ashdown spoke, he tucked his feet under him and pointed his knees at the floor. He rocked the chair back and forth. With one small movement further, he would have been kneeling to pray.

The rhetoric matched his posture. "If you don't think it's worth 5p on a packet of cigarettes to pay for free eye and dental tests, go ahead," Mr Ashdown said. He narrowed his eyes.

"Vote Labour. Vote Conservative. The crisis in our hospitals will continue." He cut off the sentence, a little righteous melodrama in his voice. Outside in the corridor, a young Liberal Democrat minder said: "He's hit the ground running."

The party lives for these moments. For the last five years, the Liberal Democrats have plodded the third-party path, scoring the odd 20 per cent in polls, being intermittently noticed by newspapers.

Yet general election campaigns are different. Abruptly, the Liberal Democrats are accorded the attention they deserve - not parity with the other main parties, but an acknowledgement of their popularity in local government, their relative radicalism in ideas and, above all, of the curious charisma of their leader.

Last Wednesday, Mr Ashdown launched regional campaigns from Manchester and Edinburgh. On Thursday, he did the same in Cardiff, Bristol and Exeter. On Friday, almost continuously, he answered questions about the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

He claims to find this personal attention irritating: "It is the same for every third-party leader. It is bizarre and hypocritical of the press to say, 'We only want to interview Paddy Ashdown', and then to turn round and write, 'The Liberal Democrats are only about Paddy Ashdown.'"

Yet when he said this in Exeter, after the press conference, a few reporters still clustered round his every brow-furrowed word, a fidgety excitement undercut his complaint. Mr Ashdown was wearing a grey suit, a little tighter than his accustomed jumpers; the strain-lines round his eyes were deep; but the eyes were shiny with life.

This election, the Liberal Democrats need their leader all the more. His public approval rating - always better than John Major's, sometimes better than Tony Blair's - dwarfs the popularity of his party, flirting with single figures. Officially, the Liberal Democrats say they will win more seats with the same, or a smaller, proportion of the vote than the 18 per cent they attracted in 1992, thanks to better-concentrated supporters.

Unofficially, they say the election "will be more difficult than last time", and worry about the Labour Party. For the next four weeks, Mr Ashdown's slim white jet will be kept very busy.

In Cardiff last Thursday morning, the drive from the airport was fretfully slow. The Liberal Democrats' Welsh headquarters is a top floor of small rooms, at the boarded-up end of town, and for the half hour that Mr Ashdown was late they jittered.

"I'm just overwrought," said the party's young Welsh chairman, tie swinging. Two candidates, waiting for the leader's blessing, struggled to erect a partition in the improvized interview room. Mr Ashdown watched from a poster on every wall.

Jenny Randerson, standing for Cardiff Central, had been chosen to present him with a local party sweatshirt. "I see him as a man," she said. "A man with a mission."

She had first met Mr Ashdown before he became an MP: "We were at a meeting of Liberal Democrat councillors, in the tea queue. I remember his first phrase to me: 'Hi, I'm Paddy Ashdown. I'm going to win Yeovil.'" But he had still not arrived. A party worker held onto the hips of a photographer leaning from a window. The candidates lined up behind the conference table, and shuffled about.

Then their eyes shot to the door: "Paddy's arriving." Mr Ashdown strode in, arms at his sides. He shook the candidates' hands, parade ground-style, and made a short, fierce speech. "A promise without a cost is a lie," he concluded. He paused: "You can all clap now." The candidates laughed, then did so.

In Cardiff, however, as in much of south Wales, Mr Ashdown's presence is unlikely to help win seats. Jenny Randerson may be the leader of the opposition on the city council, a college lecturer and canny smiler, but she is 21 per cent behind Labour in her constituency by the last general election results alone. The Liberal Democrats' best hope for a local breakthrough, she admitted, is probably a Labour government and a Welsh parliament elected by proportional representation.

Awkwardly, her party's chances are also constrained by Labour further south. Here, in what Mr Ashdown calls "the golden box", from Cornwall to the Isle of Wight, the Liberal Democrats have been digging in for years. Conservative property owners have been persuaded, almost town by town, to vote for a most unconservative party.

Since Tony Blair took control of Labour, however, this advance has seemed less sure. In the last European elections, Labour's vote in the Southwest, which had been beleaguered for years, swelled a little. Across the whole country, the Liberal Democrats won only two seats.

This time, Teignbridge in Devon may be one of the constituencies to frustrate them. Mr Ashdown could see it from the ridgetop of Exeter airport: a rectangular sweep to the south, from the blasted gorse of Dartmoor to the soft fields of the Teign estuary.

The Liberal Democrats need 9,500 more votes to take the seat from the Conservatives. Labour's share is a stubborn 8,000. The Liberal Democrats say they are confident. "In 1992 we had three councillors," says Richard Younger Ross, their candidate, "now I'm fighting from a base of 24."

His colleagues say the Conservative vote is collapsing, and in the neat stucco streets of Newton Abbot, the constituency's largest town, there is not a Tory poster to be found. In the identical gardens, each with palm and pensioner, it seems, the orange diamonds of a Liberal Democrat incursion glow instead.

Their campaign office is out by the coast, in Teignmouth. The beach is at the end of the street. The party's shopfront is glassy and wide: it is usually used for selling antiques, donated by local Liberal Democrats to raise money for the cause. Inside, the workers are grinning among their yucca plants and stacks of orange signs.

"We don't have to persuade the Labour voters," says Lesley Whittaker, the local agent, in her headscarf and red trousers, "They are telling us they will come over."

Richard Younger Ross pulls up in his car. He is 43, looks younger, and runs a design consultancy. "Everyone goes to the beach, then strolls back and drops in," he says. "Even Labour Party members. Senior ones say they'll support us on the day, they just don't want to be named." At the Labour office, in a darker room two minutes' walk away, an elderly man says, "If the Tory got kicked out here, I'd throw my hat in the air and run around the town."

Mary Kennedy, the town's one Labour councillor, is less keen to rejoice with the Liberal Democrats: "You should vote where the policies you believe in are." Another elderly man - they all seem old except her - interrupts. "When we came down here in '69, you were almost afraid to say you were Labour. You'd have had a rock through the window."

Back in the Liberal Democrat office, they are still chatty, expectant. Old tribal loyalties are nothing, they say, when you can vote tactically. Electioneering seems easy here, with the Government dying among the pastel houses and the sun glancing off the headlands. But what Mr Ashdown calls "an effective vote" may not benefit the Liberal Democrats in the southwest for ever.

In Exeter, Labour look likely to win a seat, perhaps in Falmouth, too. If they surge here as in the rest of the country, the Liberal Democrats' discreet regionalism, their "Fair Deal for the South West", with its promises of a local elected assembly and lower water bills, could look like hubris. One Liberal Democrat worker lets slip the possibility: "If I was in a Labour-Tory marginal, I'd vote Labour."

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