Despite having come easily second in the 1992 election and despite controlling the local council, the Liberal Democrats had dropped to a poor third place behind Labour. It seems to make credible the deepest fears of Liberal Democrats that the Blair effect is so pervasive in southern England that the third party is at risk of imploding.
The published polls are less dramatic, but they are not that cheering either. At around 11 or 12 per cent, the Liberal Democrats are polling significantly below what they would need even to keep the 20 seats they held in the 1992 election. Suddenly, after years of waiting for the famous breakthrough, are the Liberal Democrats confronting what could be the end of their ambitions for national, as opposed to local, power? And that isn't all. For beyond the cold, and perhaps mendacious, polling data lurks a deep and difficult question: what are the Liberal Democrats now for?
Is the party suffering something of an identity crisis? As recently as 1992 you could describe them easily with a phrase which, although deeply disliked by Ashdown, was nevertheless appropriate: third party insurance. The bigger the Liberal Democrat vote, the safer, the more responsible, it would have made a Labour government. Now that isn't so clear. What is there to insure against? Isn't Blair's Labour Party now business-friendly, deunionised, fiscally responsible, centrist and pro-European. Isn't this exactly the one that Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers despaired of ever seeing?
Supposing you take the view that old Labour will start to reappear after the election and that the Liberal Democrats will be needed, whether in coalition or as strong backbench players, to counterbalance Labour's left. Are they still capable of fulfilling such a mission? Don't they now have an economic policy - envisaging as it does a new higher rate income tax to take the low paid out of tax and a 1p increase in the standard rate to fund pounds 2bn additional spending on education - more in tune with Ken Livingstone than Blair or Gordon Brown? Aren't they now- to use a phrase even more detested by Ashdown - more left-wing than Labour?
Next week Ashdown will start to deal with these questions when he publishes his party's programme. And a week later, a party political broadcast starring John Cleese will seek to close an important gap between Ashdown's undoubted personal popularity and the willingness of electors to promise their votes to him.
The climate may be a little more auspicious than it looks. First, in terms of votes, the gloom is not unremitting. In council byelections up to the end of 1996 the Liberal Democrats lost 11 seats, one fewer than Labour, as the Tories staged a mini-recovery from their rock bottom electoral performance in 1994. Second, Bob Worcester of Mori, for one, is convinced that the polls woefully underestimate Lib Dem strength once the campaign proper starts.
This isn't just because Ashdown's profile will be raised sharply - even if the Tories start to make trouble about whether, having abandoned "equidistance" between the two main parties, they are still entitled to equal broadcast time. It's also because some Tory defectors, having mentally translated Labour's poll lead, if sustained, into a huge parliamentary majority, will recoil, in Mr Worcester's phrase, "like a mongoose from a cobra" and transfer their allegiance to the Lib Dems. Third, the Lib Dems insist their private polling shows steadily strengthening support in 40-plus, mainly Tory-held, target seats (which do not, by the way, include the rock solid Tory Tunbridge Wells) And fourth, no senior Labour politician, least of all Blair, will actively discourage tactical voting to oust Tories where Labour has no chance.
And wisely so, because the Labour modernisers, let alone a long-term realignment, of the left and centre, may yet depend on a strong Lib Dem presence. It's easy, moreover, when the "dumbing" of the electorate is a given of British politics, to deride the openness and specificity of the Liberal Democrat programme. But that ignores something important: that the Lib Dems don't have the electoral baggage that Labour has had on tax and which it may not entirely shed until it has completed a full term in office. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Ashdown's programme - and the preoccupations with the NHS and education seem to go with the grain of public opinion - nobody thinks that his modest, and except in the case of education, self-financing proposals are the tip of some huge deficit-building iceberg. And there is something more; if you doubt that the Liberal Democrats have a purpose, consider briefly the case of Lord Rodgers. Last autumn he was vigorously attacked by the Liberal wing of the party for openly proposing tactical voting which could help Labour. He is now installed as one of their champions for almost single-handedly subverting the most illiberal proposals in Michael Howard's Police Bill. Ashdown has a tough struggle ahead to ensure that his party is a national force after the election. But if he fails, British politics may be the loser too.Reuse content