Eyeing up the opposition

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HERE IS what Worldly- Wiseman, caffeine-rich, one rheumy eye on the news, knows to be true about the Liberal Democrats. They are unrealistic, even a bit flaky. They are opportunists. And, since the arrival of Tony Blair as Labour leader, they are on a hiding to nothing. Now that Labour seems respectable, there is no need for a third party. One fresh-faced alternative is enough.

This view of the Lib Dems is political death. Their party conference opens this weekend, starting the seaside political season, and every newspaper, television news editor and pundit feels obliged to pretend to take it seriously. But there is a dutifulness about the colleagues that gives the game away. It's only one week a year. Book up those fish restaurants, dust down the patronising profile of Paddy. And then, phew, back up the A23. Serious politics beckons, and this lot can be shoved back where they belong - the bottom corner of inside pages and the seven-second clips that end News at Ten reports on reform of the Civil Service.

It must be utterly infuriating for Mr Ashdown. Were I him, I would be on the phone this weekend to Simon Hughes, the MP for Bermondsey, offering him a large chunk of party funds and a top spokesmanship just so long as he called for my resignation at Brighton. He should use the words 'out of his tiny Chinese mind' and (please, Simon) try to provoke a fist-fight on the conference floor. Only thus might the conference come alive. Only thus might the oxygen of publicity flow freely.

You never know. But it is unlikely the offer has been made. For Ashdown is not only remarkably chipper, he has discovered a new source of optimism (the Lib Dems have always had the stuff, of course, in quantities that make other parties gape. Maybe there's a secret mine in the West Country). Paddy Ashdown thinks Tony Blair is good for liberal democracy. He is excited about the new sense of uncertainty and unpredictability in British politics.

He thinks . . . But before we go on, let us stop and take a slightly harder look at the Lib Dem leader himself. Ashdown is not averse to being thought just a little too radical. It is his selling point. But the truth must out: Ashdown's world- view, as revised and republished in his new booklet, Making Change Our Ally, is ordinary, down-to- earth, even unexceptional.

Ashdown believes most people 'think that politics is at best irrelevant and at worst damaging to their individual lives'. He thinks the Commons is mostly a failure. He believes that Britain will continue to pay 'an enormous economic price' for neglecting its educational system. He believes rationing in the National Health Service is inevitable and that we need a better public debate about this. He believes that for politicians to promise a return to full employment is beyond their power and 'dishonest'. He is in favour of referendums.

Formal apologies to party headquarters follow - but this stuff is not flaky. In the country, in much of business, on college campuses, these ideas are mundane. They may make Paddy seem a dangerous radical at Westminster, but would hardly surprise the average voter. The other parties may be lagging behind the Lib Dems in the frankness of their appraisal, but all the parties are lagging behind what is obvious to non-politicians. And when it comes to specific policy proposals, the Lib Dems are getting more cautious, not less: their package of higher direct taxes is likely to be watered down, while their flirtation with hypothecated taxes is unlikely to be consummated.

Liberal Democrats start to sound divorced from reality not when they are talking about politics or policies, but when they are pretending to be a government-in- waiting. The bulk of your average Lib Dem broadcast is not what makes the viewer sceptical. It is the bit at the end that implies that the party speaker is ever likely to be in a position to do something about it.

This is what Ashdown thinks might change with the Blair effect. One thoughtful Tory MP is in the habit of describing Britain as 'the land where nothing happens'. But 1994 has been a dramatic year for politics. The public reaction to John Smith's death, Blair's behaviour after his accession, and the Ulster events all challenge that assumption. There has been a sense that the ice is groaning, and may split.

The ice could open, of course, and leave the Lib Dems drowning. Labour could remain far ahead in the polls and slide into power without Mr Ashdown's goodwill or admonitions mattering a damn. But the common positions of Labour and the Lib Dems on, for instance, education, Europe, most constitutional issues, public probity and the environment are so glaringly obvious that warfare between them is beginning to look absurd.

We are back to the old, old question: is there scope for some relationship that goes further than a little semi-public frottage? And the answer is a resounding, thrilling . . . 'perhaps'. One strategist describes the parties' current relations by citing the poet Andrew Marvell: 'My vegetable love should grow, Vaster than empires and more slow'.

But the difficulties are great. It is a neat point to determine which of these mistresses is the more coy. On the Labour side, the old, centralist one-party triumphalism has not quite died, even after 15 Tory years. In terms of practical politics, this is reflected in Labour's deeply ambiguous attitude to voting reform. Few argue against it from unalterable principle: the door for proportional representation is to be kept open in case Labour needs a deal. There would probably be a referendum. But would Blair himself come off the fence as Prime Minister and advocate a fairer voting system?

It is hard to imagine the Lib Dems joining hands with Labour unless the answer was yes. Even then, there are plenty of activists in the party's heartland areas, including the South-west and the North of England, who loathe the Labour Party. On both sides there would be ranks of stone-faced potential in-laws trying to stop cohabitation.

The biggest logical objection to the two parties coming to a pre- election deal, however, has always been the relatively anti-Labour nature of many Lib Dem voters rather than activists. It is they who have made a pact seem self-defeating. And it is here that Tony Blair may have altered the situation: so deep is middle-class distaste for the Major government that he may seem less threatening than another five years of the current lot.

That would change the electoral calculations, making the ousting of the Tories likelier. At the least, a more open alliance between the two strands of leftish politics, with their separate geographical heartlands, would look plausible. The odds are still against it: for either leader to move beyond the wary interest that hangs in the air just now would require courage. But the attractions of another transforming moment in British politics have not been lost on either party. We may be just a little closer to real politics than the rituals of a wet week in Brighton suggest. Worldly-Wiseman will disagree. But then Worldly-Wiseman never, ever voted Liberal Democrat in the first place.

(Photograph omitted)