22/12/2018 20:02 GMT | Updated 22/12/2018 21:36 GMT

Former Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown Dies

Tributes pour in for "natural leader" after battle with short illness.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has died aged 77, the party has announced. 

A spokesperson said: “It is with great sadness that we announce that Paddy Ashdown passed away earlier this evening following a short illness.

“He will be desperately missed by everyone at the Liberal Democrats as a dear friend and colleague, and remembered as someone who made an immeasurable contribution to furthering the cause of liberalism.

“Our thoughts are with his family and all of his friends at this difficult time, and we ask that their privacy is respected.”

Lord Ashdown led the Lib Dems for more than 10 years, stepping down in August 1999.

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Paddy Ashdown has died aged 77

The party’s current leader, Vince Cable, said the former Yeovil MP was regarded with “immense affection and respect” during his political career.

“Our thoughts are with Jane and Paddy’s family this evening,” Cable added.

“He was famous for his politics, but his talents extended well beyond that arena.  He was an accomplished author, and had spent many years serving the country before he got near the House of Commons.

“Few people know how hard he fought to get into politics following his service in the marines and diplomatic service.  He exercised every ounce of his considerable personal stamina to win the Yeovil seat.  He was a personal example to me and to many other candidates.”

The dad-of-two discovered he was suffering from a “serious form of bladder cancer” in October.

After revealing his diagnosis, he tweeted that it “does not merit a fuss”, adding: “Many go through this. The NHS guys in Yeovil Hosp. are BRILLIANT.

“I have the best of people and the best of friends to fight this with, which makes me, as so often in my life, very lucky.”

Theresa May said she learned of Lord Ashdown’s death “with great sadness”.

“He dedicated his life to public service and he will be sorely missed,” the PM said in a statement.

“My thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends at this difficult time.”

Sir Nick Clegg, who would as leader take the Liberal Democrats into government in 2010, said: “Paddy was the reason I entered politics. He was the reason I became a liberal.

“And he became a lifelong mentor, friend and guide. Much will, rightly, be said about him in the days ahead. He was a soldier, a diplomat, a writer, a leader, a campaigner, a servant of his constituents, and an international statesman.

“But the thing I admired most in him is that rarest of gifts – a politician without an ounce of cynicism.

“He was the most heartfelt person I have known - loyal and generous to a fault. Like so many others, I will miss him terribly.”

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Paddy Ashdown with ex-Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg

Cable said Lord Ashdown “made a real mark” after entering parliament for the first time in 1983. An original supporter of Labour, he switched allegiance to the Liberal Party in 1975.

“He was always listened to, in particular, on international issues and defence.  He took up unpopular causes where he was respected for his convictions,” the Twickenham MP said.

“He inspired the Liberal Democrats from a polling position he famously described as ‘represented by an asterisk’, to become a formidable campaigning force laying the ground for the strength which later took the party into government. 

“In recent years, he has been powerful voice of real significance to the pro-European cause.  He will be sadly missed in all parts of politics and parliament.”

Cable’s predecessor, Tim Farron, said: “Paddy Ashdown was a hero to me, he saved and revived the Liberal Democrats at our lowest ebb, and then led us to our best result for 70 years.

“As a movement, we owe him our very existence.

“Much love to Jane and the family. Thank you, boss.”

 Lib Dem MP and second referendum support Layla Moran said she was “devastated” by the news.

Ashdown was made a life peer in 2001, taking on the title Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.

Dick Newby, the Lib Dem leader in the House of Lords, said Lord Ashdown was “a natural leader: energetic, charismatic and strategic”.

“He kept the Liberal Democrats alive in our early years and never lost his verve for promoting liberal values. Having worked with him for thirty years, I will miss him greatly,” he added.

PA Wire/PA Images
Paddy Ashdown campaigning for Remain in the 2016 referendum, alongside then-PM David Cameron and former Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Tributes also came in from his former political opponents, with former Tory PM Sir John Major saying he was a “a man of duty, passion, and devotion to the country he loved – right up to the very end”.

He said Lady Ashdown and the rest of his family could be proud of his achievements, adding: “In government, Paddy Ashdown was my opponent. In life, he was a much-valued friend.

“His loss will be felt deeply by many – and not least by myself.”

And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “My thoughts are with the family and friends of Paddy Ashdown.

“He represented Yeovil very well and I got to know him in the 1980s when we often found ourselves voting in Parliament together against damaging government policies.

“He will be greatly missed.”

Blogging for HuffPost UK in July this year, Lord Ashdown said he believed it was time for a new party in British politics, as Brexit divisions ran too deep for compromises to be reached.

“The truth that is staring us in the face is that we cannot find a way out of this miserable never-ending nightmare, unless we can find our way to a new shape for our politics,” he wrote.

“Is it really an impossible dream to gather together those scattered amongst all parties who share the same liberal views? That’s what Macron has done and given a new future to France in the process.

“In these unpredictable times anything is possible... It may not succeed, but I become more and more convinced that it is the only way to find a route out of this unholy mess.”