Politics

Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown wanted ‘unbelievable’ redesign of Commons chamber

THE former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown wanted to redesign the House of Commons to herald a new political era under Tony Blair, it has emerged.

Mr Ashdown said the Commons chamber, where the opposing sides are two sword lengths’ apart, could be made less confrontational and turned into a more consensual “hemisphere” shape, akin to the European parliament and later Holyrood.

The alteration would signify a new culture of “consultation, pluralism, and debate” he hoped to start by working jointly with the Blair Government.

Mr Blair’s chief of staff said he couldn’t believe the proposal.

The pugnacious deputy prime minister John Prescott was even more sceptical, complaining to one No 10 aide that Mr Blair wanted to “kiss the Lib Dems to death instead of kicking them to death”.

At the time, Mr Ashdown was keen to expand co-operation between the two parties – an idea dubbed ‘the project’ – after Mr Blair’s landslide 1997 election win.

Files released by the National Archives reveal that, in his enthusiasm, he even proposed overhauling the Commons chamber.

In a letter to Mr Blair dated July 6, 1998, the LibDem leader said that if they were to expand co-operation they needed to counter accusations it was just a “grubby deal between parties, rather than something in the interests of the nation”.

He wrote: “One of the most telling criticisms of the project will be that you are doing this to get even greater dominance and I am sacrificing my duty and role to oppose for ambition/greed etc and that this is yet another mechanism to diminish the role of Parliament and make it into even more of a cipher.

“One way of dealing with this is to openly recognise it and say that we are concerned about it too. 

“That is why we intend to make it a specific aim of the project, to restore the importance of parliament and open a new culture of consultation, pluralism, debate and even disagreement.

“And as a symbol of this we might even say we shall alter the shape of Parliament itself, turning it into a hemisphere and setting up a design competition to do this before the Millennium.”

The proposal met with little enthusiasm in No 10.

In a memo to the PM, Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair’s chief of staff, wrote: “I can’t believe that he has proposed a hemispherical House of Commons. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this project?”

The files also show that Mr Ashdown, who led the LibDems from 1988 to 1999, discreetly sounded out Ken Clarke about defecting from the Tories amid unhappiness over the Eurosceptic direction the party was taking under new leader William Hague.

In a note to Mr Blair, he said that he had had lunch with the former chancellor who told him he had no intention of leaving the Tories “at least until I am clear they cannot be dragged back to sense”.

“I got the impression that he could, if things turned out really badly, set up a different party… but not join a different party,” he wrote.

Mr Ashdown, who also served as a UN diplomat, died in 2018 aged 77.
 

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