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9 March 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 5:01am

Why Paddy Ashdown should be in government

The former Lib Dem leader has the energy of a teenager, but all the wisdom of his 70 years.

By Olly Grender

Ever worked for someone whom you want to garrote on a weekly basis, but to whom you are so dedicated you would happily follow them into battle with nothing more than a Swiss army knife? I think this description probably rings bells for several former employees of Paddy Ashdown. I know it does for me.

It puzzles me that Cameron and Clegg have not put Lord Ashdown, with the energetic enthusiasm of a teenager and the wisdom these days of an (only just) 70-year-old, in government.

When the decision was taken to send in a helicopter with SAS and MI6 officers to the port of Benghazi, William Hague could have asked someone who had done it. When the Prime Minister last week ramped up the issue of no-fly zones in Libya, it was Ashdown who went on the radio and urged the use of the UN. When it comes to helping nations to rebuild after war-torn turbulence and religious division, he ran Bosnia and Herzegovina as the UN high representative. When it comes to understanding the legacy of mismanagement of defence expenditure, his insight and strategic thinking provide clarity.

There is no doubt there will be some challenging thinking in his review into humanitarian emergency response for the Department for International Development, which he is due to deliver shortly. He will be at spring party conference this weekend, talking to activists in the bar and supporting the coalition government. People will trust him on that, because his own roller-coaster journey into the coalition in May reflected that of many in the party.

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Ashdown’s background is not solely in the field of foreign affairs and defence. He first made a name for himself as a young MP on the education brief. As party leader, his book Beyond Westminster proved he was prepared to spend time listening to and working alongside miners, dustmen, farmers and fishermen – all well before Iain Duncan Smith had even become leader.

So why, when even Gordon Brown was planning to put him in defence, according to the updated version of the Peter Mandelson memoirs, did Cameron hesitate? Was it because it took Paddy 24 hours longer than others to conclude that going into coalition was the right thing to do? Is it because he has been a little more hawkish than Clegg and Cameron over Afghanistan? In the face of the current, relative inexperience at both Foreign and Defence, these reasons now seem rather trivial.

There is another reason Cameron and Clegg should put him in government. I confessed to Paddy recently that, having read his autobiography, A Fortunate Life, I was a little ashamed that while working with him I only knew the half of it. It was described by Rod Liddle as:

Less a political autobiography than a real-life Dangerous Book for Boys, and all the better for it. This is more than anything else an adventure story. Fascinating and uplifting and genuinely, without irony, heroic, the sort of book you should read to your kids, just to let them know what can be done.

Paddy was not born into money – far from it. He has known tough times as a child and an adult; he has served his country; he has run another country; he was a mature student. He ignored the jeers in parliament and campaigned tirelessly for intervention in former Yugoslavia, having wept at the sight of the prison camps there. He has had different experiences from those at the heart of this government.

For Clegg and Cameron, the lure of the world stage is almost irresistible – it happens to every leader. But they both have an obligation to resist, and instead deliver for people at home on the economy, education, health, crime, taxation and welfare. Delivering for people from whom they have, necessarily, asked a great deal to pay down the deficit.

So, why not leave some of these duties to someone else? Someone perhaps with the energy of a teenager and the wisdom of a 70-year-old?