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Ashdown challenge turns tables on Blair


Political Editor

Paddy Ashdown yesterday moved swiftly to regain the initiative after Tony Blair's offer of pre- and post-election co-operation by challenging Labour to join his party in voting down tax cuts in this year's Budget.

In one of a series of demands set by the Liberal Democrats in response to the Labour leader's overture on the eve of their conference in Glasgow, the party leader used his new-found opposition to tax cuts to urge Labour to follow suit.

Amid a rush of reaction - some of it publicly critical - to Mr Blair's offer in a newspaper interview, Mr Ashdown and his colleagues pressed the Labour Party to show that it was genuine by falling in with specific Liberal Democrat policies on taxation, electoral reform, rail privatisation and Welsh devolution. Speaking on BBC Television, the Liberal Democrat leader referred to the earlier announcement by his economic spokesman, Malcolm Bruce, that the party's 24 MPs would vote against "short-term tax cuts to bribe the electorate".

Mr Ashdown said: "We will vote against a bad, irresponsible Budget. If you really want to co-operate join us in the lobbies voting for Britain's schools, Britain's future."

The way to co-operate, he said, was do the "practical things, the hard things, the difficult things. It's about theory and not action".

The party leader's remarks, which will be reinforced today when his keynote speech to the conference promises "clarity about policy and honesty about taxes", came as Lord Holme, the party's chief election strategist, called on Mr Blair to underpin his fresh commitment to a referendum on representation by supporting the change himself.

"Will you go for electoral reform in that referendum?" Lord Holme told a packed fringe meeting. "That's the question for Mr Blair."

Elsewhere, reaction in Glasgow to Mr Blair's promise of a pluralist politics in his interview in the Times ranged from the overtly hostile anti-Labour MP for Rochdale, Liz Lynne, who claimed that Mr Blair had tried to "ruin" the party, and Bob Maclennan, the Liberal Democrats' president, who claimed it was "just an old Labour Party stunt", to an emollient Lord Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat Leader in the Lords, who said: "If Tony Blair wants to make friendly remarks about us then I'm prepared to make friendly remarks back."

Conference reports, page 8

Leading article, page 14