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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 Published at 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK

UK Politics

Paddy's emotional farewell

Ashdown: pointing the way to the future

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Paddy Ashdown's farewell speech as Liberal Democrat leader was always going to be an emotional affair.

And, sure enough, there were tears all around when he said his goodbyes to the party conference in Harrogate.

But he handed over the job to Charles Kennedy in the same style which marked his 11 years as leader - during which time he took the party from a small, virtually irrelevant group to a significant third political force.

The BBC's Robin Oakley reports: "It brought tears to the eyes of many"
In a speech which took delegates by surprise, he left the tears to the end and instead concentrated on trying to map out a way forward for his party.

He spoke of the challenges posed by globalisation and the need for the Lib Dems to put the individual first.

And he bluntly warned them not to fall into the "easy trap of leftist, oppositional politics" because that would make them irrelevant again for a generation.

And, urging the delegates to renew their radicalism, he chided them - "we have become far too staid, far too conservative - yes, conservative - in our thinking about public services".

Tough talking

But he pointedly made no reference to his hugely-controversial policy of informal alliance with the Labour government which, at times, has risked splitting the party.

It was a tough-talking speech which raised fears that he was attempting to steer his successor down a road of his choosing.

But his aides insisted he was not going to become a back-seat driver in the manner of former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher which so infuriated her successor John Major.

They said Mr Kennedy had read the speech before it was delivered and was happy with it. He could have done little else, of course.

In the most emotional part of the speech, which saw the action man image give way to tears, Mr Ashdown declared that leading the party had given him "the pride and the purpose" of his life.

"And you have been a great party to lead, which is not the same thing, incidentally as an easy party to lead," he said.

He has been a controversial leader and made more than his fair share of detractors inside the party - but Tuesday was his day and the conference gave him a genuinely warm farewell and brought him back for two encores.

Strength to strength

Even his fiercest critics accept that, under his leadership, the party has gone from strength to strength. The big challenge now facing it, however, is where it goes from here.

There is a real danger that, with the next general election looming, the Lib Dems could slip back into their old role as the party of protest.

Some believe Mr Ashdown picked the timing of his resignation with great precision, when the party was at its high water mark.

Mr Kennedy was joking when he said after his election that it was now "downhill" from here on, but many in the party feel that may well be the case.

Mr Ashdown has taken them into power in Scotland and into an alliance with government in London.

But with the party's hopes of PR for Westminster elections effectively dashed and the general election pushing politics back towards its usual confrontational style, there is a real fear amongst many members that they have gone as far as they can.

Mr Ashdown was clearly aware of these concerns when he made his speech and he deliberately used it as a way of trying to raise his party's sights.

The great task facing his successor is to keep the momentum going.

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