A coalition? It's still just possible

Already Paddy Ashdown has become the subject of political mythology. This is quite an achievement for someone who is still leader of his party. Usually a politician has to die before myths obscure the more mundane or complex realities. But as he marches his party towards this summer's Euro elections Ashdown has been deluged with political obituaries. Most of them reach a conclusion that I believe to be wrong.

The broad conclusion is that Tony Blair and Ashdown had a clearly worked-out project for their two parties, which included the formation of a coalition government. The more narrow conclusion is that both leaders hoped the coalition would be established in May 1997, but that Labour's landslide removed such a possibility.

The main proponent of this thesis is the Sunday Times columnist Robert Harris, the only journalist who spent election night with Blair at his Sedgefield home. In a column a few weeks ago, Harris revealed that Blair was surprisingly subdued as his party gained seat after seat. The reason, he suggested, was the realisation that his project was doomed. Blair was forced by the scale of his success to ditch his intention of forming a coalition with the Lib Dems. Last Sunday Harris returned to the theme, criticising Blair for missing his big moment to remake the map of British politics.

Harris knows Blair better than most political journalists do. Even so, I am convinced that this is a misinterpretation of the "project". In my view, the two leaders were always fairly clear about the end, which was the realignment of the centre left, but far from sure about how they would bring this about.

The Harris thesis assumes that both leaders were convinced that coalition government immediately after the election would be the preferred means. This ignores Blair's doubts about Ashdown's party. Blair came into power determined to lead a government ruthlessly co-ordinated from the centre. There was to be no descent into the anarchy of the Major years. Remember the controversy of the early months when no minister dared to have lunch without consulting Downing Street first. Goodness knows how a few stray Lib Dems would have reacted to such centralised discipline. I suspect Blair always intended to test out Ashdown's MPs in a cabinet committee before moving to a full coalition.

There would have been another significant problem. Who from Labour's top table would have been sacrificed at the altar of Lib-Labbery? Gavin Strang, the minister of transport, could have been cast aside with ease to make way for Ashdown. But Ashdown needed to reassure his party that this was not a one-man career plan: he would have insisted on at least one other cabinet place. There were no other obvious candidates for immediate exclusion. And what message would the promotion of Lib Dems have sent to the Blairites in the Prime Minister's own party knocking at the cabinet door? With good reason, the likes of Milburn and Byers would have asked "what about us?".

The other obstacle was that Ashdown himself could not have responded immediately to the invitation. If the call had come on the Friday after the election he would have been involved in a big consultation exercise of uncertain outcome.

A coalition government would have been formed in one situation and one alone. If the election had produced a hung parliament or a very small majority for Labour, both leaders had agreed in advance to opt for coalition. Ashdown informed his colleagues before the election that he expected an invitation from Blair in such circumstances and he would seek agreement from his party to go ahead. The two leaders discussed possible jobs for Ashdown and Menzies Campbell and spoke regularly during the campaign itself.

The scale of Labour's win was initially a big blow for Ashdown. Far from expecting a cabinet place, he feared that closer co-operation even at a broader level was dead also. Reflecting on this, he no doubt told his wife and other close confidants that he would not fight the next election. To his surprise and delight, Blair contacted him soon afterwards and said he wished to keep closer co-operation alive. Within a few weeks Ashdown had got proportional representation for the Euro elections and places on the cabinet committee. Then Lord Jenkins, a Lib Dem peer, was appointed chairman of the commission reviewing electoral reform.

These were characteristic Blairite moves, simultaneously bold and cautious. He moved closer to the Lib Dems but kept the option open of smothering them at a later date. Both options remain in place now. In the heady days leading up to the Jenkins report, I believe Ashdown kept his options open as well. Retirement was almost a certainty, but the door could be kept slightly ajar to fight the referendum campaign as Lib Dem leader. I should add, however, that those close to Ashdown insist that nothing would have persuaded him to change his mind; if a referendum campaign had been scheduled for this autumn, they say, he would have campaigned as a back-bench MP.

Be that as it may, my view is that the project staggers on. I differ both from Harris, who thinks it died with the missed opportunity of May 1997, and from Lord Dahrendorf, who argues on page 12 that the crucial date was October 1997, when Blair failed to announce a referendum on the single currency. I think that the watershed still lies in the future, when Blair must make up his mind whether or not to support the Jenkins proposals on electoral reform and decide when to hold a referendum on the subject. Only electoral reform would produce the sort of parliamentary arithmetic that propels parties closer together. In that sense Ashdown's departure changes nothing at all.