Ashdown & Blair-The Great Coalition/Merger Plan

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    3rd September, 2007


    Paddy Ashdown was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, from 1988 to 1999.

    I’ve recently been reading Paddy Ashdown’s Diaries, Volume 2, 1997 – 1999. It’s a good read. As with Alastair Campbell’s Diaries I just wonder how such busy people find the time to write up their memories so regularly.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that the ultra-busy family man who previously occupied Number Ten would have found time, or even had the inclination, to do the same. But, you never know!

    Ashdown’s book is an eye-opener.

    For example, Ashdown quotes Blair on the afternoon of 2nd May, 1997, when Blair under Labour, and to his own surprise, had won a landslide bigger than any in 60 years:

    “Paddy … I really do want to seize this opportunity, to demonstrate that we can follow a programme which will form the basis of co-operation in the future. But I need you to know that I see this as a means of transition to an end position where you come into the show.”

    Blair could have just said, “Sorry, my friend. The people have spoken. We have won a huge landslide and there is no need for us to work together. New Labour can do this on our own.”

    Even in the presumed euphoria of that “new dawn” he still held out a hand and the possibility of the re-alignment of British politics to a political opponent.

    In the end he was scuppered by the Browns & Prescotts of his party.

    But don’t anyone tell me that Blair was a Control Freak, a jibe first made by Ashdown towards Blair in a move to get him to show his hand. Nor was Blair a Tory in disguise.

    From 1994 until well after the general election of 1997, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair met on numerous occasions to discuss working together after the 1997 election with the aim being to keep out the Tories for a generation and to bring together both parts of the long-fractured left and centre left of British politics.

    Listen to the Westminster Hour report.


    For three years, up to 1997, Blair and Ashdown had a series of secret meetings. Their aim: to put the Tories out of business and unite New Labour and the Liberal Democrats as the permanent party of government.

    Blair told his party conference as leader in September 1997 that divisions among radicals for almost 100 years ago had resulted in mainly Tory governments. He wanted to re-shape British politics by uniting the centre left.

    Ashdown and Blair held their project meetings in complete secrecy, in what Ashdown described as “the love that dare not speak its name”. They both believed that it would have been impossible to negotiate out in the open.

    It crosses my mind that when the fact of the talks of four plus years was revealed, Brown and others in the party would have immediately felt aggrieved by Blair and perhaps unwilling to trust him again. The beginnings of their plot to remove this most radical of progressive politicians?

    No wonder Blair has aged over the last ten years. Many disgruntled colleagues, a bitter, pipped-at-the-post Brown, Iraq and its aftermath, not to mention the cash-for-honours fiasco.

    Sleeping at night couldn’t always have been easy for Tony Blair. Certainly Ashdown talks of many fitful nights in his quite personal account.

    Blair and Ashdown’s ultimate aim was a merger of their two parties, but a “softly softly approach” was needed.


    Ashdown called the project, “tfm” – “The Full Monty” in his book. With another reference to this illicit relationship, he wondered, would it be – “Marriage, casual sex, or living together”?

    Ashdown preferred the last of the three, though Blair would have rather had the first. It does NOT seem to have been the middle option. For that, attraction quickly fades.

    Ashdown insisted that he required reform of the electoral system. He often despaired at pinning Blair down. Blair was not as clear as he thought he was.

    A colleague said to Ashdown, “Tony Blair is like Don Giovanni – he means it when he says it.”

    Tom McNally: “Paddy came back from Blair with great enthusiasm.”

    Their biggest obstacles lay within their own parties. Many Lib Dems disliked Labour, and Blair faced hostility from the bottom to the top of his party.

    Ashdown: “Blair over estimated his own charm and under estimated the objections of the big guns in his party.”

    “His charm is a very powerful weapon. I used to steel myself to resist.”


    Once they learned about the project, Brown and Prescott headed the resistance to it.

    By the 1997 election, Blair had said he’d bring Liberal Democrats into the government – Ashdown and one or two others.

    The weekend before polling day, Alastair Campbell first heard about the project which until then only Blair and Jonathan Powell had been working on.


    “Sat April 26th – TB stunned me straight out with the boldest plan yet. ‘How would people feel if I gave Paddy Ashdown a place in the cabinet and started merger talks?’

    Fuck me. I loved the boldness of it but doubted he could get it through the key players. He’d hinted at it a few times in the past but this sounded like a plan. He was making a cup of tea, chuckling, ‘ We could put the Tories out of business for a generation.'”

    There was no call once Labour had won its landslide. His party was too full of its own power and importance to need Liberal Democrats, and refused to go along with Blair’s plan, despite Blair’s continued desire.

    So, instead Blair offered Ashdown a Joint Consultative Cabinet position. Ashdown had decided it was not sufficient and his party feared being consumed into New Labour; split loyalties.

    Was Ashdown duped by Blair as some of Ashdown’s colleagues thought?

    Ashdown said, “No. He [Blair] was serious. He said often that he thought he’d be judged by this re-alignment. I was not concerned about the depth of his intellectual commitment of what we were trying to do.”

    Ashdown asks, “If Blair never intended to go ahead and was just using me, why did he have such difficulty with Brown and Prescott. In the end he was forced to choose between his two big beasts and his desire to re-align the Left.”

    There was no option open to this most inclusive of recent political leaders, whose instincts were more Liberal Democrat than Labour in many policy areas. He must have yearned to be free of the whipping boys in the Unions and the ban-the-bombers in his own party, as well as the fiercely anti-Europeans.

    He has evidently lived for ten years with political opposites sitting close by, while he struggled to move the country where it (seemed) to want to be moved. The irresistible force meeting the immovable object?

    Prescott said to Blair: “If a Liberal Democrat walks in that front door I’m out the other door. I’m not in Lib- Lab alliances. “


    Perhaps looking to secure his own place in history, the irony is that Brown when he became PM did offer to make Ashdown a Cabinet minister in his self proclaimed government of all the talents, but was turned down by Ashdown.

    Ashdown thinks Brown is sincere in this, and puts it down to his beginning to learn. He said he spent a long time over two years educating Blair as to what partnership politics was about.

    I wonder what would have happened had this ‘merger’ materialised after 1997. Would Ashdown have stayed on as leader, rather than retire exhausted, as he admits in his book?

    He’s certainly the best leader the Liberal Democrats have had since the Liberal/SDP merger, in my humble opinion.

    In the end he was asked by Blair to use his Special Services, political and diplomatic experience in Bosnia, and famously made a great fist of the task.

    I can’t help feeling that Blair had, almost, a political soul-mate in Ashdown, whose presence in Cabinet might have made quite some difference to decisions or at least to the handling of the Iraq situation.

    I do not necessarily conclude, even if Ashdown disagrees, that Ashdown, if in full knowledge of the facts available to Blair over Iraq, would have adopted the ‘holier than thou’ approach of today’s Liberal Democrat party, Charles Kennedy or Menzies Campbell.

    Once a soldier – or a marine in Ashdown’s case – always a soldier.

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    One Response to “Ashdown & Blair-The Great Coalition/Merger Plan”

    1. Confirmed by a Lib Dem I respect – Paddy. ‘Clegg is the New Blair’ « Tony Blair Says:

      […] here to read more from Ashdown’s excellent Diaries for evidence of Mr Ashdown’s high regard for Tony […]

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