Magazine article The Spectator

In Pursuit of the Full Monty

Magazine article The Spectator

In Pursuit of the Full Monty

Article excerpt

THE ASHDOWN DIARIES, VOLUME II, 1997-1999 by Paddy Ashdown Penguin, L20, pp. 592, ISBN 0713995114

Best not to start this book unless you're fighting fit. In over 500 pages, Paddy Ashdown describes his relationship with Tony Blair from the general election in May 1997 until his resignation as Liberal Democrat leader in July 1999. It is all rather exhausting. The relationship certainly exhausted Ashdown, who more often than not seems to have gone to bed cross and dejected, slept badly and got up early. Poor Jane. He had already made up his mind to retire as party leader. What kept him going for another two years was `the project', his ambition to heal the wounds between the social and liberal democratic Left of British politics which, he thought, had left the field to the Tories for too much of the outgoing century. Clearly, Blair shared Ashdown's objective and together they made the project into something of an obsession, the pursuit of which in its most extreme version becomes nothing less than full coalition government, which Ashdown refers to as 'TFM' (The Full Monty).

Endless secret meetings took place, usually in Downing Street, lasting many hours. One grows to trust Ashdown's blow by blow versions of these conversations. We can see the the Prime Minister willing the end but not knowing how to get there. While Ashdown pushed for TFM, Blair's responses were equivocal. He told Ashdown early on that he wanted to `demonstrate that we can follow a programme' that could form the `basis of co-operation in the future as a means of transition to an end position where you come into the show'. Sir Humphrey could not have put it better.

Both men fluffed the opportunity on 2 May 1997 to bring Lib Dems into the government, and lived to regret it. Thereafter targets were regularly set and missed for the formation of a coalition government. Both leaders had self-evident problems within their own ranks, and Ashdown's struggle to drag his MPs along with him are well documented. One suspected at the time that he could have worked harder to persuade the Lib Dems of the charms of the project, but Blair's agonisings made it difficult to steer a coherent line.

The one major prize achieved by all this effort was the introduction of PR for the European Parliament, a goal on which Ashdown rightly put great value. This, after all, was what David Steel had failed to extract out of Jim Callaghan in the Lib-Lab pact 20 years earlier. Picture the scene in the early hours of the morning, on their way back from handing over Hong Kong, when Ashdown and Blair hatched the deal on PR for Europe as they walked around the plane, grounded at Novosibirsk, within a chalk circle patrolled by Russian soldiers. …

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