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The BBC's Jonathan Beale reports
"Mr Ashdown's diaries will worry traditionalists in both parties"
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Former Liberal Democrat Leader, Paddy Ashdown
"In the end the forces of tribalism beat us"
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The BBC's Emily Latimer reports
"Ashdown promised that the party would adopt a policy of strategic opposition"
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Monday, 23 October, 2000, 08:38 GMT
Blair wanted coalition says Ashdown
Paddy Ashdown
Mr Ashdown believes coalition will happen eventually
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, has claimed the prime minister would have preferred to be at the head of a Lib-Lab coalition government following the 1997 election rather than governing with his current massive Commons majority.

Speaking as extracts of his diaries are published in the press Mr Ashdown also claimed that Tony Blair is convinced of the case for proportional representation.

I have become convinced of the need for electoral reform in Britain

Ashdown quotes Blair
Mr Ashdown told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I am absolutely convinced he wanted it to happen. I believe that to be the case.

"But it isn't a question of whether we would have preferred this coalition or that.

"We would have preferred, and I would still prefer and I believe it will happen, to have a system of government in which parties co-operate and work together in the interests of the nation and the parties of the left make sure we have a better government."

Other claims in Mr Ashdown's journals include a secret pact between the two leaders to form a coalition government.

The journals, being serialised in The Times newspaper, show the extent to which Mr Ashdown had worked alongside Tony Blair, and reveal a strong personal relationship.

The project was to design an aircraft which we believed could fly

Paddy Ashdown
The talks between the two leaders were kept secret from a number of colleagues in both parties who it was feared would oppose any deal.

Mr Blair is said to have told Mr Ashdown discreetly he would back proportional representation and favoured having Liberal Democrats in his government whether or not Labour achieved a working majority in 1997.

'Paddy's dreams'

But problems would have arisen with such a scheme as Chancellor Gordon Brown is reported to strongly oppose PR.

While on Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told the BBC he would never have served in a coalition cabinet, saying the idea was in "Paddy's dreams".

In his diaries, Mr Ashdown recalls his involvement in secret talks with Mr Blair as early as 1993 - before he succeeded John Smith as Labour leader.

He catalogues their many discussions about forming a coalition government which would deliver PR.

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown is said to oppose PR
Mr Blair initially expresses concern about changes to the electoral system because of Gordon Brown's reservations. But the dairy shows progress and agreement between the two leaders as the May 1997 election approached.

Mr Blair is said to have told Mr Ashdown on 14 January 1997 that "I have become convinced of the need for electoral reform in Britain".

Merger floated

Mr Blair even floated the idea of a merger of the two parties, says the journal, although that was quickly stamped on by leading figures in both camps.

It adds that the extent of co-operation between the parties was often discussed at Mr Blair's and Mr Ashdown's homes, with their wives party to the discussions.

Though actual co-operation has been much more limited since Labour came to power in May 1997, Mr Ashdown said he still believed that, eventually, the two parties would engage in coalition government.

Mr Ashdown told the paper: "The project was to design an aircraft which we believed could fly.

"What we have left is a blueprint for it to be done in the future, and two scale models in Wales and Scotland (the coalition pacts for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament) are already in the air."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman was dismissive of Mr Ashdown's diaries, saying it was a case of "another week, another book".

The spokesman said Mr Blair remained "unpersuaded" of the case for PR at Westminster.

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See also:

19 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Ashdown predicts 'ugly' election
14 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy's conference challenge
17 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
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Hughes issues Lib-Lab ultimatum
05 Jan 00 | UK Politics
Leaks spark Labour PR row
10 Aug 99 | UK Politics
Action man bows out
10 Aug 98 | UK Politics
Labour turns back on PR
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