11 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 61

Commando leader in politics

John Grigg

THE ASHDOWN DIARIES, VOLUME I, 1988-1997 by Paddy Ashdown Allen Lane, £20, pp. 638 Naive, they call him. Well, if Sir Paddy Ashdown is naive, naivety is clearly no obstacle to extraordinary political achieve- ment. Consider what he has done. By 1976 he had abandoned two promising careers (as soldier and diplomat) and, though mar- ried and with young children, decided to try his luck as a politician. But not the easy way. As a convinced Liberal, he set his sights on the apparently safe Tory seat of Yeovil, where he settled and, with some difficulty, found employment. For a time he was on the dole. In 1979 he contested the seat unsuccessfully. In 1983 he won it, and he has held it ever since, at the last election with a five-figure majority.

In 1988 he was elected leader of the Lib- eral Democrats (as they became after a name controversy which provided an early test of his toughness and skill). A majority of Liberals and Social Democrats had decided to merge, but a substantial minori- ty of the SDP, led by one of its founders, David Owen, would not accept the demo- cratic vote and broke away, continuing to use the original name. There was also a sig- nificant defection of Liberals. Ashdown thus found himself leading a party which was 'an organisational shambles, financially bankrupt and inherently split'. The words are his own, in the diary that he began to keep, at Tam Dalyell's suggestion, on the day of his election as leader.

The diary is a major achievement in itself. Dictated, as a rule, at the end of a frantic day, or sometimes the following day, it could well have been scrappy and diffuse. But in fact it is lucid, lively and pacy. It brings home to one the strain under which a modern party leader has to work, espe- cially when leading a small party with limit- ed resources. Ashdown is candid about his difficulties and does not conceal his dark nights of the soul, showing how often pub- lic machismo had to be sustained to the accompaniment of private anxiety and dis- tress. He is scarcely less critical of himself than of others, though his comments on individuals can be sharp and shrewd. He has a remarkable gift for recording conver- sations verbatim, in a way that seems utter- ly authentic. Anyone at all interested in politics could hardly fail to find the diary absorbing.

As leader his daunting task was to unify the party and then make it a force in the land. Within three years the Owenites and the dissident Liberals had been seen off, and the Liberal Democrats were no longer regarded as no-hopers. Their base in local government was strong and rapidly improv- ing. Though the 1992 general election was on the whole disappointing for them, it was far more so for Labour. The party's strength in parliament after that election was 20. In 1997, despite the countervailing attraction of Tony Blair and New Labour, the party returned with 46 MPs, the largest representation for a third party since the 1929 parliament.

True, this outstanding result was due to tactical voting rather than to any increase in the aggregate vote (which was a little down). But Ashdown's leadership had done much to encourage Labour voters to sup- port Liberal Democrats in seats which their party could not hope to win. His key deci- sion, taken in 1995, was to abandon the policy of 'equidistance' and to state clearly that the Liberal Democrats would not sup- port a minority Conservative government. But as an independent left-of-centre party they would be willing to co-operate with Labour on issues where the two parties' principles converged.

In this spirit he entered into private dis- cussions with Tony Blair in particular, but also with other Labour leaders who favoured co-operation. Sharing Blair's vision of a revived Lib-Lab partnership, he looked forward to coalition as the optimum result, but only on terms that his party could safely and honourably accept. Even before the 1997 election his hand was rela- tively weak, because New Labour was on the march with policies that had a very wide appeal. But he never negotiated weak ly — unlike the Liberals 20 years ago, who had an extremely strong negotiating posi- tion but nevertheless kept an unpopular Labour government in power without obtaining any worthwhile quid pro quo.

The size of Labour's majority in 1997 made coalition impossible, whatever Blair may have wished. All the same there is already much to show in constitutional reform for Ashdown's bold, intelligent poli- cy. He and his wife decided before the elec- tion that unless he were in government he would retire afterwards, though not imme- diately. He acted on the decision last year, leaving the party in good order for Charles Kennedy.

His life as leader was exciting and event- ful, as the diary vividly shows. He did not confine himself to the political struggle at home, but became deeply involved in the Balkans, on which his views commanded cross-party respect. His private life was subjected to merciless media persecution from the moment when a brief affair in the mid-1980s came to light in 1992, for the wretchedly unlucky reason that a note relating to it was stolen, along with money, from his lawyer's safe and taken by the thief to the News of the World. This earned him from the Sun the nickname 'Paddy Pantsdown', a tabloid witticism which he generously describes as `dreadful — but brilliant'.

In 1995 a knife was held to his throat by a racist in a Yeovil street, and the assailant tried to blackmail him into not taking legal action by accusing him of having frequent- ed a brothel kept by the man. He neverthe- less pressed charges and the man was given a custodial sentence.

At the time of the trial Ashdown's car was burnt out and he received hate mail and death threats. The man's accusations were splashed by the Western Daily Press, which had to grovel when Ashdown threat- ened to sue. The News of the World approached a prostitute named by the man, with a letter so ghastly that it deserves to be quoted: As I am sure you arc aware, there is great press interest surrounding Mr Paddy Ashdown's private life and the so-called `smear campaign' currently being waged against him.

Bearing in mind that you are due to be named in court as 'Zoe' and linked 'sexually' with Mr Ashdown, it suggests you could have a great story to sell and we at the News of the World would, of course, like to buy it!

Obviously there is much to be discussed. Please call me asap.

`Zoe' spurned the paper's money and denied having ever met Ashdown. He rightly calls her 'a brave lady'.