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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 06:39 GMT 07:39 UK
Williams steps down to ovation
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent in Bournemouth

When Shirley Williams walked out of the Labour Party almost a quarter of a century ago it was to cries of "traitor" and "quitter".

She said then she was out to break the mould of British politics with the creation of the centre-left Social Democratic Party.

When she made her final party appearance as a front line Liberal Democrat on Monday, she was handed an emotional standing ovation.

And she left, declaring the walls of two party politics were crumbling.

As she shuffled, in characteristic style, off the stage at the Bournemouth conference centre she could have been in no doubt about the special place she held in the affections of the delegates.

It is something Baroness Williams must have grown used to over the years.

Prime minister

Even many in the Labour party, which she quit in 1981 as part of the "Gang of Four" SDP founders, still regard her with warmth.

Many were deeply saddened when she left them, citing exasperation at the behaviour of the left-wing in the party.

That was not simply because of her straight forward, honest, if shambolic, Margaret Rutherfordesque, character.

They saw a formidable, natural politician and potential woman Labour prime minister abandoning them.

Others, it must be said, were furious and blame her and her other "co-conspirators" for helping lead Labour into the wilderness. They have not, and probably never will forgive her.

But few who know Shirley Williams would ever accuse her of insincerity, political vanity or lack of principle.

At home

Her dream of creating a radical new force in British politics - which once appeared tantalisingly within her grasp - crashed. The SDP fell and is recalled now only by the Democrat bit of the Lib Dem name.

And, of course, she and her fellow gang members stood on the sidelines as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson created pretty much the centre-left party she wanted.

Had she stayed with Labour would she now feel at home? Would she have been a leader?

She has never displayed any sign she is anything other than comfortable in her Liberal Democrat skin.

And the Lib Dems were clearly more than happy to have her as their leader in the Lords. But those questions will always nag.

Twenty three years after her defining political decision, she is still waiting for her party to be the one to change the face of British politics.

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