Unwanted house guests: Paddy Ashdown killed my guinea pig ...

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The Independent Online
Guess who's coming to dinner? If you live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne forget seeing your mother-in-law, it's more likely to be a leader of a political party. Yesterday, Paddy Ashdown's aides let it be known that the Lib Dem leader was off on a fact-finding mission spending the night with a family that knows what it's like to live on benefits.

Now everyone has heard that this government's imperative is to get as many people off benefits as possible. And presumably this is their latest secret weapon in welfare-to-work: get off the dole or we're sending Paddy round to stay. (Certainly it's likely to have a greater effect than any Job Seekers' Allowance or childcare scheme.)

The organiser of the visit, a Liberal Democrat councillor, said Paddy's hosts wished to remain anonymous to avoid the pressure of the media glare. That means that we can only imagine what could possibly happen when a brave politician goes to seek "real views from real people" ...

It's 00:00 hours (or 5.35pm to you or me) and three masked men in camouflage gear and a dog knock down the front door of the council house belonging to George, Julie and their children Jack and Susan. Flat against the wall, the men swarm into the living room and tie the flabbergasted family to the dining room chairs. Then one pulls off his mask: "At ease, troops. Hi, I'm Paddy Ashdown. Great to meet some real people instead of hanging out with the Young Lib Dems. Let's discuss Labour's planned shake-up of the benefits system." His faithful mongrel, Luke, gives Jack a lick as Paddy gets out his Geordie translation book.

But it's a bad time to choose. The kids seem to be concentrating on a soap opera called Neighbours (which Paddy notes doesn't seem to quite fit the party's stance on finding local solutions to local problems) and Julie is concerned about starting tea.

"Don't worry - let's forage!" shouts Paddy. "We had to in Borneo you know!" He returns a few minutes later with a small furry animal which he kills with his bare hands. "I've eaten rats before - we had hard times in the Marines," he says. Young Susan starts to cry: "You've killed Bubbles the guinea pig, you horrible, horrible man. Boohooohooo."

Paddy looks apologetic. "Oh damn, not again. Difficult to tell in the dark. I'm so sorry," he says. There is a ferocious knocking at the door. He springs up again. "A riot! We get an awful lot of those in Yeovil too you know. I once fought off a knife-wielding attacker with an old Special Boat Service trick." He opens the door suddenly and pounces on the intruder. Unfortunately, the little old lady he jumps on gives him a stunning left hook and fells him. "Get your filthy hands off me, young man. I'm not that kind of girl," she squawks. "Julie, those local lads are causing trouble again. Three of them dressed up playing silly buggers have uprooted my best apple tree and fence."

"I think that was Mr Ashdown, Ma'am," says Julie. "I think they were using the twigs as disguise. It's something politicians do."

"Er yes," says another of the camouflage men. "Sorry about that. We didn't know what else to use. Have a Young Lib Dem spliff in compensation."

"Don't mind if I do," says the good lady, accidentally kicking Paddy quite viciously on the shin as she sits down. "Paddy Ashdown did you say? Isn't your real name Paddy Pantsdown? Didn't I hear ..."

"Great, the whole family is finally together," breaks in Paddy. "Now we can really discuss what you think of the welfare state."

There is a stunned silence.

"Well I think it's a good idea," ventures George.

"I don't think lone parent benefit should be cut," adds Julie.

"Can we watch EastEnders?" chorus Jack and Susan.

"But do you think that Labour is backtracking on their election pledges? What do you think of the Tories opposing a pounds 65m benefit cut that they had proposed in government? What do you think of the Lib Dem proposals?" adds Paddy.

"It's time for tea," says Julie with relief.

Throughout the meal Paddy cross-examines each member of the family for half an hour about their knowledge of the childcare disregard, pensioners' one-off winter payments and disability living allowance. Adding up the marks at the end, Susan and Jack tie, with Susan winning the tie break for knowing Harriet Harman's middle name. She's given a Lib Dem "Make a Difference" election poster as a prize. At 8.20pm Paddy pronounces it time for bed.

"But we haven't seen the end of EastEnders yet," sulks Jack, still miffed over Harman. Paddy looks surprised. "But we're getting up at 6.15am to read through the papers. My overnight team will have provided a brief on the media. Then we're going jogging and a few physical jerks - mens sana in corpore sano."

"I've hurt my ankle," says Julie.

"Oh don't worry. It's something I've adapted from the All Work test to see if you're eligible for disability benefit. Most people who have to do it are much more ill than you are," replies Paddy cheerily.

Darkness descends on the house in Denton as Paddy sleeps peacefully curled up with his Marine Teddy Bear and a copy of the 1997 manifesto. So soundly that he does not hear the furtive footsteps outside his door and the quiet closing of the front door.

Outside the Job Centre George and his family shiver, waiting for dawn to break and the centre to open. Soon they are joined by two other families huddling together in horror.

"What are you doing here?" they all ask. The other two snort in derision at George's tale. "Paddy Ashdown? Gosh you're so lucky. We've been up since four singing hymns with Tony and Cherie. And we had to put up with Twenty Questions on the Millennium Dome."

"Pah that's nothing," said the others. "We've been doing transcendental meditation with William Hague all night. When Ffion started singing "Land of My Fathers" to drown out the chanting, we switched on the ghettoblaster. And when they threatened to call for Cecil Parkinson we left. Never again. Just give me a job and get them out of here."

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