Barnstorming baroness warns of the perils of a sell-out to Labour

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Shirley Williams proved herself the perennial conference darling once again yesterday when she brought Liberal Democrats to their feet with a powerful warning that their policies must not be swapped for seats in a Labour cabinet.

Baroness Williams, one of the "Gang of Four'' who founded the Social Democrats, took to the platform to rally the troops before Paddy Ashdown made an unscheduled closing speech promising not to sell out to Labour. But the party leader did keep his options open on the possibility of a partnership with Tony Blair.

Lady Williams said that she recognised the unease of many Liberal Democrats about Labour. "But it is up to us," she told them. "The Liberal Democrats must not be diverted from their key policy objectives. We must not exchange them for a handful of government posts.

"It is our responsibility to hold any new government to them, to support it in achieving them, to remonstrate or even withdraw our support if it fails to attempt them."

The former Labour cabinet minister said her old party was a "necessary part" of the change Liberal Democrats wanted to bring about in the way Britain was governed. Without change they could not achieve their objectives of a high standard of education, job creation, constitutional reform and an end to "petulant, wrecking tactics" towards the European Union.

The constitutional package of voting reform, freedom of information, human rights and devolution would require the efforts of "a great reforming administration" over at least two Parliaments, Lady Williams added.

But the passage that most pleased delegates on the final day of the conference was her warning against a sell-out to Labour - the issue which has dominated this week's events following a suggestion by Alex Carlile, the leader of the Welsh party, that Mr Ashdown might be offered seats in a Tony Blair cabinet.

Both Mr Ashdown and Lady Williams believe the election could be the trigger for seismic change in the political landscape. A defeated Conservative Party could split and a more pluralist system of politics develop.

Lady Williams said that if the European issue cuts across parties as it did during the 1975 referendum campaign, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine and a score of other Tory MPs would find themselves much closer to the Liberal Democrats than their own party. "I hope and believe they will fight alongside us, for Britain's whole future role in the world will be at stake," she said.

Mr Ashdown addressed concerns about any future liaison with Labour by pointing to the lessons of local government where Liberal Democrats share power with other parties.

"The first lesson is this: that there are many ways of exercising power and influence. Rule nothing in. Rule nothing out. Keep all options open. And campaign to win," he said.

n Lawyers whose cross- examination methods caused excessive distress to rape victims should be liable to pay compensation, the conference was told yesterday. The proposal was one of a series intended to ease the suffering of rape victims and will be considered further by the party. Earlier this week, the conference called on the Government for a full-scale review of sentencing policy.