Ashdown launches stinging attack on PM

By Hannah Brenton

David Cameron has presided over a campaign of “downright lies”, Paddy Ashdown has said.

The former Liberal Democrat leader launched a stinging rebuke of the prime minister, as the referendum on the alternative vote (AV) is expected to result in a defeat for voting reform.

Lord Ashdown told the Guardian the prime minister’s failure to dissociate himself from the ‘no’ campaign’s tactics would have a negative impact on the coalition.

“So far the coalition has been lubricated by a large element of goodwill and trust. It is not any longer,” he said.

“The consequence is that when it comes to the bonhomie of the Downing Street rose garden, that has gone. It will never again be glad confident morning.”

The former Lib Dem leader added: “David Cameron is the prime minister. He sets the tone of politics in this country. It is an unhappy fact that when he was asked to dissociate himself from a campaign that was run on the basis of personalisation and personal attacks, and messages that were far more than some subtle bending of the truth, he refused to do that.

“I have to say that he did not dissociate himself from a campaign whose nature I believe every previous British prime minister in my time would have disassociated himself from. That is a grave disappointment.

“This is a triumph for the regiment of lies. We live with pretty strenuous political campaigns in Britain, but these were downright lies.”

The Lib Dem grandee expressed the growing anger in his party’s ranks over the Tories’ involvement in a ‘no’ campaign that has personally attacked their leader Nick Clegg.

“The bottom line is that Liberal Democrats are exceedingly angry. We believe there has been a breach of faith here. If the Conservative party funds to the level of 99% a campaign whose central theme is to denigrate and destroy our leader, there are consequences for that.

“I have always said when asked I did not think the result of the referendum could affect the coalition, but I did think the way it was fought could,” he added.

But Lord Ashdown underlined the Lib Dems’ commitment to the coalition “for the long haul”.

“I recall how long it took us as a party to recover after 1991. It is not this year, next year or the year thereafter. It is about being strong enough when the dividend comes.”

Appearing on BBC1’s Question Time programme, Lord Ashdown said Labour would be to blame if AV was rejected by the electorate.

“If we are to lose this vote it is because the Labour party has delayed on the business of reform. I don’t believe you can trust the Labour party on reform,” he said.

He also said Gordon Brown rejected an offer to go into coalition with the Lib Dems after the general election last year.

“I rang Gordon Brown on the Monday and said ‘are you guys prepared to work with us to put this country right?’ And he said ‘No, after speaking to all the Labour leadership candidates, we would rather go into opposition’,” he said.

Andy Burnham, shadow education secretary, said Lord Ashdown was “talking rubbish” and “re-writing history”.