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Monday, March 2, 1998 Published at 21:10 GMT

UK: Politics

Lib Dems celebrate 10 years
image: [ Paddy Ashdown can count the past 10 years as a personal success ]
Paddy Ashdown can count the past 10 years as a personal success

By Carolyn Quinn, Political Correspondent

In 1988, only the most hopelessly idealistic Liberal would have believed that 10 years later their party leader would have the Prime Minister's ear, would have a seat on a Cabinet committee and would have seen much of the party's constitutional wish-list ticked off.

The birth of the Liberal Democrats in 1988 was a difficult one. The post-Alliance merger between the Social Democratic Party and the Liberals left members exhausted, demoralised and party coffers empty.

Their new leader Paddy Ashdown is credited even by those who do not see eye to eye with him, with pulling the party up by its bootstraps. Perhaps, as a former Royal Marine, it was his military training and discipline that did it? Or was it the fact that he was said to be able to kill people silently - a useful attribute in politics?

But the Liberal Democrats, as they became, have pursued a strategy that has gained them much and lost them little.

Up to the 1992 General Election they favoured the policy of "equidistance" - helping neither the Conservatives nor Labour. But after 1992, the gradual inching towards Labour began, heightened by the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994.

In 1995, equidistance was consigned to the political dustbin. Mr Ashdown announced that the Lib Dems would no longer support the Tories in the event of a hung parliament, but he insisted that "didn't mean cosying up to Labour". Anti-Labour Lib Dems complained Paddy was only after a Cabinet position and fancied a seat in a government Daimler.

After the party doubled its number of MPs in the 1997 General Election, the warmth between "Paddy's Party" and "Blair's Babes" became almost tangible. There is a place for Liberal Democrats on a special Cabinet committee and constitutionally there is proportional representation (PR) for European elections, the beginning of reform of the House of Lords and devolution. An electoral commission under Lord Jenkins is looking at PR for Westminster, though question marks remain about Mr Blair's conviction on this.

But some Liberal Democrats remain wary that Mr Ashdown may take a step too far and be tempted into coalition. That would test the party to the limit. As Lib Dems get ready to celebrate their 10th anniversary (and they like to think they are "party animals") they are preparing to debate at their spring conference this month their strategy, positioning and tactics. It will certainly be a significant conference.

Mr Ashdown says this is the beginning of phase three - a new era. Phase one was to survive after the traumas of merger. Phase two was to create a party strong enough and clear enough about what it stood for.

For Mr Ashdown, the past 10 years have to be counted as a personal success. If the 1997 result had been worse, he might well have been considering retirement at this stage. Now, unfortunately for those with their eye on his job, he shows no signs of letting up.

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