Sean O'Grady: Blair's tactics with Ashdown became a shoddy business

Friday 05 July 2013 05:03

A few months after he became the Labour leader in 1994, Tony Blair told Paddy Ashdown: "You must understand I am not playing a tactical manoeuvre on you. You can trust me on this."

I don't think I am the first person to notice the Prime Minister instinctively knows that he has to say what you, the listener, want to hear. It has served him well. Those on the receiving end of his constructive ambiguities have often come off rather badly. One of those victims was my former boss, Paddy Ashdown.

For a very brief period as Ashdown's press secretary, I was able to witness Mr Blair's tactics at close hand. It was a shoddy business. Here were two leaders who were supposed to be embarked on the lofty task of mending the historic schism between the two progressive parties. The late Roy (Lord) Jenkins was the godfather to "the project" and entrusted it to these two energetic and determined political sons.

Ashdown may have been wrong to convince himself that, deep down, Blair was "one of us", a Liberal mind trapped in a Labour body, but Blair did nothing to disabuse him of the notion that they were on the same side. Quite the opposite.

Time and again, Ashdown would bounce back to his office in the Commons like Tigger from his meetings with Blair at No 10, elated at the prospect of a deal. The enthusiasm never seemed to dim despite Blair's failure to deliver, although there was frustration. Ashdown faxed his diary entries and notes of their meetings over to Downing Street to make Blair stick to his word, but to little avail.

Blair even ignored his own 1997 Labour manifesto, which stated explicitly: "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system".

The independent commission was formed under Jenkins and it reported within a year, but we are still waiting for that referendum.

Often Blair would give the impression that he would love a deal on PR, but that he needed time - always more time - because his colleagues wouldn't let him. For all we know, he was simultaneously telling sceptics such as Jack Straw, John Prescott and Gordon Brown not to worry, that he wasn't terribly serious about PR, that Ashdown was pushing his luck and that he didn't mind dangling such promises in front of the Libs if it meant they pulled their punches.

To Ashdown's great credit, he never wavered in his insistence that he had to have PR - or at least a referendum on PR - before he would accept anything from Blair. That meant turning down cabinet jobs for himself and Menzies Campbell, probably the last chance either man would have of ever doing so, and all because Blair told him: "You must understand

When he was asked later if Blair had led him up the garden path, Ashdown replied: "He was sincere at the time". Mr Kennedy seems to have learned the lesson.

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