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Lib Dems are `anarchists' says Lord Owen

LORD OWEN, the former leader of the Social Democratic Party, has branded the Liberal Democrats "anarchists" and predicted that they would lose almost half their seats at the next general election.

In a rebuff to Charles Kennedy, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Owen said that Paddy Ashdown had "quit at the high point" for his party when he stood down this summer. Lord Owen told theCambridge Forum, a debating society at Cambridge University, that the party would struggle to retain the 46 seats they won in 1997. "I think they will get fewer seats at the next election. Charles Kennedy will be doing very well if he retains 25 seats," he said.

The former foreign secretary, who rarely comments on his former partners, had Mr Kennedy in his ranks as a Social Democratic MP, but they disagreed over whether the party should merge with the Liberals. Mr Kennedy joined the merged party while Lord Owen's party decided to go-it-alone before winding itself up.

Lord Owen said he liked Mr Kennedy and wished him well. "He's a good speaker and he's got a good sense of humour, but Hague's probably a better speaker with a better sense of humour and a fat lot of good that's done him," he said.

"The Liberal Democrats are the grit in the system. They're part of a very noble tradition of anarchism. I've fought against them my entire political life. I can't stand them."

Lord Owen said Mr Kennedy should abandon Mr Ashdown's policy of having close links with Labour, and return to the Liberal Democrats' previous stance of being "equidistant". "The Lib Dems can only have a coalition with Labour," he said. "Labour knows that, so it doesn't have to give them anything."

He said a merger of the Liberal Democrats and Labour, advocated by some people in both parties, would be "a crazy idea". He added: "If Labour gets down to a 10 or 20-seat majority, coalition would be sensible, because then you'd have real bargaining power."

Lord Owen, who now heads the New Europe group, which is pro-EU but opposes the single currency, said he hoped there would never be a referendum on the euro. "The questions can be rigged. There is some evidence the Government is thinking of this."

And as the Liberal Democrats prepared to discuss their general election strategy in Edinburgh tomorrow, William Hague accused them of "betraying" the interests of voters in their heartland in the South- west of England. "Time and again, local Liberal MPs have put their party's alliance with Tony Blair at Westminster before the interests of the South- west," he said.