Paddy's `new-found clarity' seems as muddled as ever

POLITICAL COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
TO ANYONE who can add two and two and get the right answer - a declining band among Liberal Democrats, at any rate on the evidence of those gathered together in the new brutalist surroundings of their Glasgow conference - it is evident that Mr Paddy Ashdown's hope is the same as that of Mr Jeremy Thorpe in 1974 (even though his picture may now have been turned to the wall), as it was of Sir David Steel and Lord Owen, the leaders of the Alliance, in 1983 and 1987. The hope is of a hung parliament.

I do not, I confess, greatly like the phrase. It came over from the United States in the mid-1970s; was first used, I believe, in the Economist; and derives from the hung jury. But everyone, in the political classes anyway, knows what it means. Among the population at large, I suspect, it remains a mystery. It means a House of Commons in which no single party holds a majority of seats.

The new House is to contain 659 members. I did not realise that until quite recently. Many of my colleagues in the writing trade have still not taken it on board. And who shall blame them, with all the other complicated matters which they have before them to engage their daily attention? What it entails is that Mr Tony Blair - for everybody now assumes, perhaps too easily, that it will not be Mr John Major but Mr Blair - will have to win at least 330 seats (not, as at present, 326) before he can call himself his own master.

In the 1980s, up to the 1987 election, I wrote countless columns on the implications of a hung parliament. Of course, they could be counted easily enough, if anyone were sufficiently deranged to undertake the task. But they seemed a lot at the time, as they still do.

Others wrote to similar effect. Learned precedents - what Stanley Baldwin did in 1923 and then in 1929 - were tossed around like practice balls before a cricket match. The precise powers of the Crown to send for a party leader, and much else besides along the same lines, were most earnestly discussed. It was not exactly a waste of time. All knowledge is valuable in itself. In any case, you never know when it may come in useful. But it was certainly not much use in 1983 and 1987, when Lady Thatcher returned to No 10 as effortlessly as if she had spent the afternoon shopping at Harrods.

Why, then, did we go on at such length? It was because of the strength of the SDP-Liberal alliance. Nor was this strength chimerical. In the two elections of the 1980s the Alliance successively polled 25 and 23 per cent of the total vote. The level of support was not, however, reflected by the number of seats. Far from being restrained, Lady Thatcher became more maniacal with every month that passed, until finally her colleagues could stand no more, and bloodily dispatched her in November 1990.

Oddly enough, we are today nearer to having a hung parliament than we have been since the days of the Lib-Lab Pact in the late 1970s, and for the same reason: the activities of the fell sergeant, Death, and the consequential adverse by-elections. Indeed, I was recently shown an actuarial report predicting that by May 1997 Mr Major would have lost enough MPs through death to deprive him of his majority.

Mr Ashdown is not looking towards that time, when and if it arrives. In such unhappy circumstances (I am thinking of the deceased members' nearest and dearest), he would have no choice but to support Labour in bringing down the Government. Rather is he looking at the period immediately after an election. My colleagues detect, or claim to detect, a fresh sense of purpose in Mr Ashdown: a new-found clarity, a crisp decisiveness, that sort of thing. I regret that these qualities remain only too well concealed from me.

For example, Mr Ashdown makes mock of Mr Blair's proposals for the House of Lords: principally to deprive hereditary peers (except, it seems, those of first creation) of their voting rights. He says that this reform would turn the Lords into the biggest quango in the kingdom and suggests, to the applause of the massed Liberal Democrats, that he would prefer a wholly hereditary chamber.

Mr Ashdown's criticism would carry more conviction if members of his own party were not so keen to swallow every single crumb of Lords patronage which successive governments have been prepared to cast in their direction. The original "Gang of Four" are entitled to their peerages, inasmuch as anyone can be "entitled" to one, because they are former - as it happens, Labour - cabinet ministers. But most of the others are persons of the utmost insignificance, peers solely because they were once not very big fish in a rather small pond. I do not name names. They know who they are. The luxuriance of Liberal Democrat life peers is a disgrace. I would advise Mr Ashdown to preserve a discreet reticence on the matter.

This is as nothing compared to Mr Ashdown's inconsistencies over electoral reform. He attacks Mr Blair for promising a referendum on it. He says it is a fine thing for politicians to make up their own minds. This draws loud and prolonged applause from the assembled Liberal Democrats. On the next day Mr Menzies Campbell (who looks and sounds like the new leader of the Scottish Tories) repeats Mr Ashdown's promise of a referendum before there is any change in our constitutional relations with Europe. This draws less loud and not such prolonged applause, because it is not Mr Ashdown but Mr Campbell who is speaking, and the hall is less full. But why should a referendum on our constitional relations outside the United Kingdom be virtuous, while one on the same subject inside the UK is vicious? It does not make sense.

What makes even less sense is Mr Ashdown's threat - it was not made in his principal speech on Tuesday but at his closing press conference on Thursday - to vote against a Labour government if the Queen's Speech does not contain a clear commitment to electoral reform. Now Mr Ashdown knows, or ought to know, that this is simply not possible. Indeed, he can consider himself fortunate if Labour's first Speech from the Throne embraces even a referendum on the subject. This has come and gone from lists of People's Party commitments according to the mood of the moment and the vagaries of the speaker. It seems that it is back in favour, just about, though it may be relegated to the second session (that is, never) on account of "priorities" and "heavy commitments".

If Mr Blair wins 330 or more seats, how the Liberal Democrats vote does not greatly matter. But is Mr Ashdown prepared to bring a minority Labour government down at the first jump simply on the question of electoral reform? Perhaps he is. I doubt it. But, if he is, it makes all the talk of sustaining a Labour government either hypocritical or, more probably, thoroughly muddled.

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