POLITICS

Lib Dem Conference: Lord Ashdown Tells Activists Chris Huhne Scandal Isn't So Bad For Party

09/03/2013 14:05 GMT | Updated 09/03/2013 14:15 GMT

Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown joked with activists at the party's Spring conference that the Chris Huhne scandal does not mean "they've got it hard."

Lord Ashdown said in a speech Saturday morning that when he first stood for Parliament in Yeovil in the 1970s, the Liberal leader at the time, Jeremy Thorpe, was facing trial at the Old Bailey.

In a reference to Huhne - who is due to be sentenced on Monday - he joked: "You think you've got it hard now, forget it."

lord ashdown

Former Liberal Democrat Leader Lord Ashdown speaks at the Liberal Democrat's Spring Conference at the Hilton Brighton Metropole

In a rousing speech, Lord Ashdown said Eastleigh showed how strong the Lib Dems were on the ground.

And he urged activists to make sure the party's time in government was not a "blip".

"You know, I'm sure that you, like me, have often told children and grandchildren that it's not the winning that matters, it's the taking part," he said.

"Well let me let you into a little secret. That's bollocks."

The peer, who will be co-ordinating the general election campaign, went on: "I don't want being in government, to be a blip for the Liberal Democrats.

"I want it to become a habit. Liberals waited have waited a hundred years for May 2010. And I dreamt every hour of my leadership of our party, that one day we would have the opportunity to be where we are now, in government; making a difference.

"What else are we in politics for, if not to be prepared to take the responsibilities of power, so we can benefit those we serve with government informed by the principles we believe in."

Lord Ashdown admitted that the task now may be tougher than when he was in charge and the party sharply increased its number of MPs.

"In some ways what's ahead is more difficult than it was then; with the legacy of Labour's economic disaster to overcome, with Tory heartlessness to fight, and tough decisions to take in government," he said.

"But in some ways its easier, too. Now we have a message which is clear. A record in government to be proud of. And an outstanding team of ministers who easily outshine anything the other parties can offer."

Separately, and what will come as a relief to Nick Clegg, Lib Dem activists Saturday morning overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to the party's constitution that would have meant a leadership contest could be triggered by a two-thirds vote at conference.

Deputy leader Simon Hughes was among those who spoke against the change, warning that it could destabilise Clegg's leadership.

Under existing rules, an election must take place if the leader calls one, dies or becomes incapacitated, or ceases to be an MP.

A contest is also held if a majority of the parliamentary party votes no confidence in the leader, or 75 local party associations formally demand one.

A leadership competition must be held within a year of a general election unless the party is in government or the federal executive delays the process.

And further embarrassment for the Lib Dem leader was avoided again on Saturday after the chances of activists debating a potentially awkward emergency motion calling for the Government to change economic strategy were significantly reduced.

The party's Federal Conference Committee has ruled that a proper debate on the motion - which urges higher capital spending - would require the full hour available Sunday.

It will only be selected if it tops the ballot of activists - the results of which are due to be announced Saturday afternoon - rather than come in the top two as had been expected.

The decision guarantees that the leadership will not face two difficult debates, on so-called secret court legislation and economic policy.