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Wednesday, January 20, 1999 Published at 19:22 GMT

UK Politics

Ashdown goes on high note

Paddy Ashdown quits while he's ahead

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Paddy Ashdown has decided to quit as Liberal Democrat leader while he is still on the crest of a wave.

The BBC's John Pienaar: "A politician who led from the front"
His shock announcement came on the very day he realised a long-cherished Liberal dream to reform the House of Lords.

And it followed hard on the heels of his recent joint announcement with Tony Blair that their two parties will be working even more closely together over areas of policy where they agree, such as health and education.

Mr Ashdown, who sits on a cabinet committee with government ministers, has already seen Labour adopting his policies on proportional representation for European elections and for a freedom of information act.

But some in Westminster were also asking whether Mr Ashdown was the latest victim of the Mandelson scandal.

Pact weaker

It was disgraced former Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson who was the fiercest backer of an allegiance between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

With him gone, and anti-alliance government frontbenchers led by John Prescott flexing their muscles, it is clear the pact will become weaker and may even collapse altogether.

And with a fierce anti-alliance feeling within his own party, Mr Ashdown was going to find it increasingly difficult to hold the line.

Many pointed to the fact that Tony Blair appeared to know about Mr Ashdown's decision before ordinary party members as a sign the relationship was too close.

His future as leader was always tied irrevocably to winning the ultimate prize of a government commitment to a change in Britain's first-past-the-post voting system in general elections.

He wanted a referendum before the next general election and a clear statement from Tony Blair that he backed change.

No vote

But the prize appeared to slip from his grasp at the Labour party conference where delegates expressed fierce opposition to the move towards PR at general elections.

And even when Lib Dem peer Lord Jenkins published his proposals for change it became evident the referendum would not be held before the next election.

With Mr Mandelson out of the calculation and Mr Prescott threatening to go to the wire over the issue, Mr Ashdown was facing ultimate defeat and the inevitable leadership challenge.

Instead he is going as one of the most successful Liberal leaders ever. He presided over the transformation of his party from an irrelevant fringe to a major player.

Most in Westminster are ready to accept that he decided some time ago that he would go before the next election to spend more time with his family.

And he can truly claim to have seen key polices put onto the statute books. It is also certain he will want to have a key role in the succession.

Battle for leader

That now threatens to turn into a battle over the future of the deal with Labour.

Leading contenders include MPs Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy, veteran Menzies Campbell and Nick Harvey.

Both Hughes and Kennedy are against the alliance with Labour while Harvey is a Eurosceptic.

So all eyes will be on who the outgoing lead anoints as his chosen successor and, under the one-member-one-vote system used to elect leaders, the race promises to be an unpredictable one.

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