Ashdown finds reason to forge a strange alliance

Liberal Democrats are convinced they figure in Blair's obsession with the need for a second and probably a third term
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The Independent Online
On the face of it, it's hard to imagine anything crazier. Tony Blair, the most popular, unifying, peace-time Prime Minister of the century carries all before him. Today's endorsement of the Scottish Parliament vindicates not only his party's devolution policy but his own, rather lonely, and, in Scotland, originally much criticised decision to hold a referendum in the first place. His intuitive grasp of the public mood after the Princess of Wales's death, and his ability to speak for the country, underline his invincibility. His majority is huge and impregnable. His party shows scarcely a sign of schism. And up pops Paddy Ashdown talking about the desirability of coalition. Who does he think he is?

A politician still confident he is very much in play, is who. His interview this week with the New Statesman was at once more casual and calculated than it looks. More casual, in that he did not mean to drop some heavy hint that he is imminently to be offered, much less accept, a fistful of places in a Blair Cabinet. More calculated in that he is determined to drive home to his own party, as it prepares for its annual conference in 10 days' time, the merits of its deepening relationship with Labour - a relationship which will enter a new phase next Wednesday when senior Liberal Democrats meet ministers for the first time round the cabinet table under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister.

There were grumbles among some of Ashdown's MPs at Westminster when he broke it to them that he was accepting places on the new cabinet committee on constitutional reform. But he is entitled to boast that his strategy - all the way from his pre-election promise that he would not prop up a minority Tory government - has so far succeeded better than even he could have hoped. The arm's-length alignment with Labour paid off handsomely as voters, backing candidates from each party with cheerful anti-Tory promiscuity, delivered Ashdown 46 seats. Because of Labour's landslide, even with this signal electoral success, the party doesn't have the leverage it would have liked. But that is precisely why it's sensible to exploit whatever opportunities it has, including seats on the new committee, to press the Government into backing the one change that would qualitatively transform its chances: electoral reform for the House of Commons. It is not even as if the party has forgotten how to oppose; with an eye to the student vote, the Liberal Democrats will campaign this autumn against the Government's introduction of student fees. For all these reasons, despite the huffing and puffing, Ashdown will have little serious trouble at his conference.

For Blair himself, it's different. He can't see, from his Olympian perch, anything on the horizon which threatens the kind of parliamentary instability that would make the Liberal Democrats useful, let alone necessary. But Ashdown's calculation is that Blair is looking well beyond the horizon. When the Prime Minister famously spent some of the summer before the election reading George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, he cannot have known how relevant the landslide of 1 May 1997 would make it. The story of the collapse of the centre-left which so dominated the 1906 parliament is imprinted on his brain. The Liberal Democrats best placed to read Blair are convinced that he is obsessed by the need for a second, and probably a third term. And they are probably right that they themselves figure, however cloudily, in that obsession.

Nevertheless, there is an odd omission in Ashdown's intriguing disclosure that he would have recommended to his party a coalition had there been a hung parliament. At what price? He is surely not assuming that Blair would have given away proportional representation in an indecently hasty backroom deal to prop him up. It would have been just as plausible, and a good deal more dignified, for a Blair minority government to soldier on and win a second election outright. But without it, would Ashdown's party have backed coalition? Probably not.

For electoral reform remains the Liberal Democrats' own obsession. And for all Ashdown's bullishly expressed conviction that Blair will come round to PR quite soon, the Liberal Democrats are still unsure of Blair's true intentions, or even whether Blair himself is yet sure of them. Yes, he wants to forge the sort of grand alliance that will withstand the pressures which did for the left and centre-left after the First World War. But how? Does he calculate that, denied electoral reform, the most serious Liberal Democrats will have nowhere to go but to a Labour Party they can at last feel entirely comfortable in, or is he a pluralist in the purest sense of the word? New Labour big tent, or multi-party coalition? Even the most optimistic private characterisation of the Prime Minister's views is that he is "emotionally more open to being intellectually persuaded" of the case for reform.

The deliberations of the cabinet committee on the terms of reference for the Commission which will put a reformed system to the promised referendum may shed some light on his views, and on whether he is flirting with the halfway house of the alternative vote system. The pressures are building up in favour of change, the latest being increasing talk in Scotland that local authorities might change to PR to clean up town-hall politics - a reform that is fully in the competence of the new Edinburgh parliament. If that happened, England might well follow. And a first-past-the-post system for Westminster would look all the more anomalous.

But whatever the answer is, Ashdown's strategy can scarcely be abandoned. In hindsight it seems incredible that the Liberal Democrats could ever, post-Blair, have contemplated continuing to sulk in an equidistant tent. They will oppose the Conservatives, they can only compete with Labour. The two leaders are friends. The big picture policies, on social cohesion, on economics, even on all constitutional reform short of PR, could hardly be closer. Only tribalism, in either party, now stands in the way of the kind of co-operation Ashdown envisages. No one yet knows quite what the endgame is. But there is a book which both Ashdown and Blair yearn to see written sometime in the next century. Forgive the title - it's awful: The strange continuity of liberal and centre-left Britain.