The New Statesman Interview - Paddy Ashdown

As he packs his bags for Bosnia, the former leader of the Lib Dems describes this government as wors

There can't be many people around Westminster who have told Tony Blair that some folk think he's a smarmy git. Paddy Ashdown is one of them. "He and I speak pretty bluntly to each other," Ashdown admits, and he has never been afraid to tell Blair, as their relationship developed over the past six years, what he thought of his perceived weaknesses. As Ashdown's own memoirs have recorded, their friendship was close, their joint plans extravagant: they had a "Project" to unite Labour and the Liberal Democrats and fundamentally change the face of politics in Britain. Ashdown's disappointment that Blair did not press ahead with the Project is well documented. But now he has had an even bigger let-down.

The issue is Europe - "the big thing", according to Ashdown, "which marks the difference between Blair being a good Prime Minister and being a great Prime Minister". Ashdown clearly believes that this is what will (or more likely will not) win Blair his place in history: "I think history will deal very hard with him if, with all this huge inheritance, he ends up this time not delivering on Europe."

Like many other pro-Europeans inside and outside the Labour Party, Ashdown had been led to believe that Blair really would press ahead with the case for joining the euro in his second term. When Ashdown used to tell Blair how people viewed him, and expressed his own amazement that Blair was not using his huge resources - "this fabulous majority, weak enemies, personal charisma" - to achieve what he wanted, Blair would always reply to Ashdown: "Watch me in my second term."

Yet what has happened so far? Just four weeks after the election, Ashdown describes himself as "very depressed" over Blair's failure to give a lead on the euro, and believes the chances of Britain joining the single currency are far weaker now than they were before the election. He dates this to Gordon Brown's Mansion House speech, in which expectations were dampened down with all the force of a battalion of firemen's hoses. Perhaps, he muses, the speech was "spun" more than was needed by Brown's people to give an impression of euroscepticism that was not there in the text.

This is the Prime Minister's fault. In a tone that conveys surprise, if not amazement, Ashdown says: "What he has done is allow Brown to have complete control of the agenda." The way he sees it, "Brown is now in an absolutely central position in the government. Most people have to go to him - not excluding the Prime Minister himself - if they want to get something done." (But see Robert Peston, page 16.)

So Blair's hands are tied, unless he risks open warfare with his Chancellor: "What that means is that, on the one big issue that Blair has to confront, there's now no way that he can confront it."

Ashdown betrays none of the personal animosity towards Blair that comes over so clearly in his memoirs. Perhaps that's because he has a new job. He has been asked by the European Union to take over as the high representative in Bosnia, providing the diplomatic niceties and international agreements can be sorted out. If that's the case, Ashdown will be "proud and enthusiastic to do it". It is a job that is not exactly in Blair's gift, but you can be sure that he will have played a part in securing it.

So, no bitterness; rather, a rueful questioning of Blair's character. Having plotted and socialised with the Prime Minister for some years, Ashdown has an insight denied even to some in the Labour cabinet, as when Blair told him, "I remember watching Roy's speech at Warrington [the former Labour cabinet minister, Roy Jenkins contested the seat for the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981] and thinking, why aren't I in that party?" He adds quickly that Blair never seriously contemplated joining the SDP.

Yet he still sees Blair as an enigma: "He's a fascinating bundle of paradoxes." He is genuinely puzzled that Blair has not pressed ahead more quickly with causes that are clearly dear to him, such as the realignment of the left and joining the euro. "I just can't work this out," Ashdown continues, speculating that, on the one hand, Blair seems to be "too timid, just not courageous enough"; yet, on the other hand, he has shown amazing strength: he is also the man who "alone got rid of Clause Four, fundamentally reformed the Labour Party, single-handedly won the Kosovo war by persuading the US president against his own advice that he had to send ground troops in . . . I don't understand this . . ." Ashdown tails off.

It is not the only paradox. He believes that, personally, Blair is "the most pluralist person I've met", listening to arguments, responding to points made. Yet, Ashdown continues, his government "is the least pluralist and the most control-freaky government of all time. Even Mrs Thatcher wasn't as bad as this."

Ashdown is a military man by training, and believes in leadership - strong leadership, leadership from the front. Even so, he too might have had great difficulty delivering his own party to "the Project", had Blair allowed it to go ahead after the 1997 election. Just as Blair faced opposition to the whole idea from the likes of John Prescott, so Ashdown would have found himself at odds with key figures in his party such as Charles Kennedy and Simon Hughes. He admits that, with the possible exception of a euro-referendum suddenly springing up to unite the parties, the prospect of a Labour/Lib Dem alliance is over for a generation at least.

Part of the answer is simple: "I think the deadly thing for our party", he warns, "is that Blair has now completed the Project without us." Ashdown doesn't mince his words: "The great event of British politics is that the Labour Party has now been fundamentally repositioned." He argues that there has always been a "political settlement" on the left, which a series of different parties - the SDP, the Liberal-SDP Alliance, the Liberal Democrats - all tried to articulate in their turn, but failed. That political settlement meant that "a centre-left party can be the natural governing force of our country, from a position which appeals to the middle classes but doesn't abandon the poor".

Ashdown had feared that Blair could take this territory for himself if the Liberal Democrats weren't prepared to go along with him. Now, he admits, "Blair has moved the Labour Party lock, stock and barrel" on to this territory. He clearly regrets that he and his party are not there, too; they would have made this a "more liberal, more European, more green and more international" government had they been allowed to join in. So where does it leave his party, the Liberal Democrats? The obvious place is the ground that Labour has vacated - on the left - and, judging by the reaction against Blair's plans for private involvement in the public sector, it may prove fruitful ground.

But Ashdown cautions against this: "It would be a deadly mistake for us to say, 'Where's the space? The space is to the left of Labour. We'll go there'." That remark will make the current Lib Dem leadership wince, for this is precisely the space that Kennedy has been moving to. It didn't seem to do him any short-term harm during the election, when the Lib Dems increased their number of parliamentary seats. But this is a longer-term game, and Ashdown is reluctant to give up the Lib Dems' traditional values to Labour: "If you let someone else steal your language, steal your ideas, you are dead." He describes the current new Labour regime as "liberalism, modern 21st-century liberalism", and believes the only future for his party is not to cede the centre ground, but to press ahead on the reform agenda. He supports Blair's plans for private involvement in the public sector, but thinks the PM has not yet "worked out the language" to articulate his ideas properly. Why doesn't he use the "killer fact", Ashdown wonders, that 60 per cent of the highly regarded French hospitals in the public sector are run by private companies?

Ashdown seemed, at the time he stood down, very disillusioned. His grand plans with Blair had turned to dust. The first volume of his diaries (there is another on the way) was highly readable because of the grand narrative of hopes betrayed. By the end, he had led a modest revival in his party's fortunes; yet they remained an insignificant parliamentary force. I ask if he is a disappointed man. "I'm a deeply, deeply contented man at the moment," he replies, claiming that he left the party leadership at the right time and of his own choosing, and now finds himself with a "fascinating and engaging" job to do for the next couple of years. He is worried that expectations of what he can deliver in Bosnia are too high, but is eagerly contemplating setting up home in the Balkans, which he has visited so many times, and which he loves.

And what of Jane, his long-standing, long-suffering wife? It was reported that he turned down a posting in Kosovo because Jane didn't want him to take another big job. So has she been persuaded now? "Jane is the calm centre of a turbulent family," he says, "who will say, with a few barrack-room expressions thrown in, that she'd much rather stay in Somerset and tend her garden, but she'll come out with me and live in Bosnia for two years."

It's not the cabinet seat he dreamed of. But it is a real job, with high standing, on the international stage. It would be trite to say that after the Lib Dems, Bosnia will be a doddle. Yet, in a way, Ashdown seems relieved to be leaving domestic politics behind. Whatever Blair's place in history, his own may yet be carved out in the Balkans.