Profile: Does he still matter?: His energy kept the Liberal Democrats going, but then came Blair. Paddy Ashdown

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PADDY ASHDOWN was pounding around the House of Commons gymnasium as usual last week. At 53, he still has the stamina of a much younger man. But even in the mirrored Westminster gymnasium there are reminders that things are not quite what they once were. Ashdown featured prominently in the gym's latest league tables of those in top fitness, but his rating has fallen behind that of some younger MPs, including Edwina Currie.

If a week, in Harold Wilson's phrase, is a long time in politics, a summer is an eon. In the May local elections the Liberal Democrats triumphed with 28 per cent of the vote. The pundits were talking about their emergence as the natural party of opposition in the South. The Tories would lose the next election, it was predicted, but a Labour overall majority was deemed all but psephologically impossible. The Liberal Democrats would probably hold the 'balance of power'. Then a deal with Labour and a referendum on proportional representation? Then an eternity of power-broking?

John Smith's unexpected death changed all that. Labour had a new leader: young, energetic, telegenic and, above all, acceptable to the southern middle classes. Suddenly, Ashdown was the oldest of the three party leaders - not just in years but in length of office. Three of the 'gang of four' - all Liberal Democrat peers - gave varying degrees of approval to Tony Blair. (The exception, Lord Owen, can have been of small comfort to Ashdown.) Now, even the parliamentary candidates are warning of a 'whiff of panic abroad in the party'. Ashdown, the former Royal Marine, seems threatened both by possible desertions and a minor mutiny in the ranks. But perhaps more important, as Liberal Democrats gather today in Brighton, many voters must wonder whether he still matters.

The most poignant memory for Ashdown must be that, when he was elected in 1988 (as leader of what were then the Social and Liberal Democrats), the press reception was rather similar to that afforded Blair now. He likes to divide his leadership into phases. The theme of the first was, in his own word, survival. The 1987 election had been a disaster, followed by the bitter merger of the Alliance parties, which left Lord Owen's rump SDP on the outside. According to one colleague, it was 'Paddy's energy that saved the Liberal Democrats from disappearing down the plug-hole'. In the 1992 election campaign, he was determined not to miss out on either anti-Tory or anti-Labour protest votes and stressed the Liberal Democrats' 'equidistance' between the two parties. The result was disappointing but the leader was thought to have had a 'good campaign' - a bravura solo performance which, despite constant exposure, contained not a single gaffe of significance. He had managed even to rise above the 'Paddy Pantsdown' episode, when he confessed to an adulterous affair.

THE second phase came after the 1992 election. He started with overtures towards John Smith, the new Labour leader, calling on his party to help create a 'non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives'. He was greeted by frosty silence from Smith, nervousness from his own activists. He beat a tactical retreat. The emphasis moved towards 'targeting' seats where the party was already running second, particularly in the South-west. By-election victories and increased council seats followed.

Then came Blair and the media orgasm. Ashdown's first reaction, according to one friendly Labour MP, was 'to go into a bit of a huff'. The Blair hype was so great, he complained privately, that if the new Labour leader were discovered walking on water, this would merit only page three treatment. His exasperation showed when, back from a trip to Bosnia, he was questioned not about the civil war but about Lord Rodgers's endorsement of Blair. When Ashdown retired to his Burgundy holiday home in August he was, said a colleague, 'very fed up'.

His answer to Blair's emergence was to emphasise the differences between the two parties. The Liberal Democrats, so the theory goes, have to go out ahead of Labour, laying down a series of challenges; only by seeming distinct in the short term can the two parties get closer in the long term. That way neither of the parties' traditional supporters are alienated. As Westminster waited for the Cabinet reshuffle, Ashdown jumped in first in a faintly ludicrous attempt to freshen his team.

Many in his party detected panic. They were reminded of the time, about 18 months before the last election, when Ashdown flirted with the idea of calling for a government of national unity headed, perhaps, by Michael Heseltine. This summer, senior colleagues advised their leader to keep his head down until the Blair honeymoon was over. But Ashdown is not known for sitting on his hands. 'If he were a child,' said one colleague, 'you would think he was hyperactive and would wonder whether this was going to cause difficulties in later life. Denis Healey's dictum that, when in a hole you should stop digging is one that he simply does not recognise.'

His predecessor, Sir David Steel, has an iron rule not to go on Radio 4's Today programme before 8am. By that time, as one MP puts it, 'Paddy has completed a quarter of his working day' and probably already rung some colleagues three times. In his garret- like office at the House of Commons you will see posted on the wall that the usual time for 'team meetings' with the leader is 8am. He does, says one close colleague 'tend to try and run the party like a military operation'.

PADDY Ashdown's problem now is that the other opposition party has a leader whose style is at least as appealing as his. So people pose the one question that Ashdown doesn't want asked: what, apart from reform of the voting system, do the Liberal Democrats stand for? This lack of a distinctive edge is the real failing of Ashdown's leadership and it is, in some senses, puzzling. He has, after all, made the running on many foreign and defence-related issues from the Gulf war to Bosnia. He outflanked Neil Kinnock by asking smarter questions in the House of Commons and by identifying a number of issues before they came centre stage, such as negative equity. He has produced two books and a pamphlet and is 'never happy unless he has a project on his word processor', says a friend.

It is not, as one senior Lib Dem put it, 'that we do not have enough policy documents, in fact we have so many that you can hardly carry them all to conference. But somehow we do not have a cohesive agenda.' The feeling persists that Ashdown is not entirely comfortable with domestic issues - he once forgot his proposed top tax rate in a pre-election press briefing. In the 1992 campaign, the almost daily rallies were carried off with panache, Ashdown striding through dry ice to a podium, to the sound of 'Paddy's Theme', composed by Cliff Richard's musical director and a former member of Bucks Fizz. But the only thing we remember is his proposal for 1p on income tax to improve education - a good idea, which went down well with the voters, but it hardly amounted to an agenda.

The party's consolation is that it now has a record 4,600 local councillors. (Paddy, runs the joke in Brighton, should modify Sir David Steel's famous conference call of 1981 and urge the delegates to go back to their constituencies and prepare for local government.) Moreover, the Liberal Democrats' poll position has held steady at around 18 per cent - more than 10 points above the nadir in the late Eighties.

Since returning from holiday, Ashdown has been more positive about the new Labour leader, declaring that 'he is going to do things to the Labour Party that the Labour Party needs to have done to it'. He has effectively ditched 'equidistance' when he says that 'it is very difficult to conceive of the possibility of working with the Conservative Party of the sort that we have at present'. He knows that, in the past, the Liberals have done well when the Conservatives have not. With a lot of luck and even more targeting, the Liberal Democrats could still reach 40 seats in the next election.

The reality, however, is that Ashdown's fortunes will be largely determined by Blair's; all he can do is that which he least likes - bide his time and stay in the game. Only 12 months ago, he argued that he might, just, be Britain's next prime minister. This year he will be wise to eschew such claims.

(Photograph omitted)

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