Standing Down

Free Standing Down by Rosa Prince

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Authors: Rosa Prince
supported him in the leadership campaign. To begin with he wanted me to do the Treasury brief – I was a bit nervous about that.
    There was a bit of a struggle for places and Ashdown came to me and said, ‘Look, there’s someone that really wants to do this, and I’d quite like to get everyone involved and engaged.’
    And he said, ‘What else would you like to do?’
    And I said, ‘Defence.’
    The defence brief was considered a ‘hot potato’ but Sir Menzies managed to win over the party conference – which sets Liberal Democrat policy – to support an independent nuclear deterrent.
    His profile rose still further as the party made the running in opposing the First Gulf War of 1990–91, often performing better than the official opposition in the form of Labour.
    The two parties joined forces however a few years later as, along with Edinburgh neighbour Robin Cook, then the shadow Foreign Secretary, Sir Menzies helped to put John Major’s government on the rack over the 1996 Scott Inquiry into sales of arms to Iraq.
    Yet in the run-up to the 1997 election, with no prospect of becoming a minister, or, he believed, leader of his party, Sir Menzies began to think seriously about returning to the law:
    I thought Ashdown was going to be indestructible. He thinks he’s indestructible as well.
    I was able to go on running my [legal] practice. The truth is I expected to do a couple of parliaments, maybe ten years, twelve years, and then just go back full time to the Bar, because my ambition was to be a Court of Session judge.
    In 1996, a year before the election, I was offered the High Court bench in Scotland. I was minded to take it.
    Sir Menzies took his dilemma to Lord Jenkins, the former leader of the SDP and Labour Cabinet minister, who advised him that should Tony Blair, the Labour leader, need the support of the Liberal Democrats to form a government, there was ‘a reasonable chance’ he might be made a Cabinet minister:
    So there’s this fly dangling in front of me – I decided to turn down the bench. It was quite a big decision because it [would have] meant going back to my legal roots and a different kind of life; more secluded, more private – cloistered to some extent.
    Everyone thought Blair might win by twenty-five [votes], in the end he won by 160, so that was Roy Jenkins’s prediction and my ambition out of the window.
    What happened along the way was it just got in the blood. Politics got in the blood.
    My pension as a retired judge would be quite a lot more than my salary as an MP. [But] as my wife constantly says as she eyes up the shop windows of Harvey Nichols, ‘Money’s not everything.’
    She’s right because I really have had the most extraordinary time. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, I’ve seen five Prime Ministers come and go in different ways.
    Two years later, much to Sir Menzies’s surprise, the ‘indestructible’ Lord Ashdown did stand down. He has joked that he regretted not challenging for the leadership ‘for about ten minutes of every day’, but at the time he was not convinced he could beat Charles Kennedy, the eventual winner:
    I thought Kennedy would win outright. I was still undecided if I really was going to go on in the House of Commons. I’d seen at close quarters the impact it had on the lives of Paddy Ashdown and David Steel, and that really was considerable.
    [I] did get on very well [with Mr Kennedy]. I was a really great admirer of his; wonderful political touch.
    In 2003 came what Sir Menzies considers his finest hour in the Commons, when he and Mr Kennedy led the opposition to the war in Iraq:
    We had a lot of sleepless nights. The principal stand I took, because of my legal interest and because of my interest in international law, was: this is illegal. It can’t and shouldn’t be done.
    We were all influenced by forty-five minutes to Armageddon and things of that kind. There just seemed to me to be so many doubts about it.
    Although Mr Kennedy

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