Blair overture hits right note

PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, will seek to capitalise on Tony Blair's hand of friendship today by emphasising his own party's commitment to an honesty in politics that the public no longer expects.

Emphasising in his keynote conference speech the three Liberal Democrat priorities for change - better education, constitutional change and a sustainable economy - contained in the Liberal Democrat Guarantee to be endorsed on Thursday, Mr Ashdown will pledge to offer a clarity over policies and an honesty about taxes that people no longer expect from politicians.

"I want to use this moment to start a great campaign up to and through the next election in which we will say simply and plainly how Britain must change and how the Liberal Democrats will guarantee those changes", he will say.

Speaking against the background of yesterday's higher borrowing figures, Mr Ashdown will emphasise his own party's unity over its own prescription for change and long-term sustainable prosperity.

Despite outward signs of irritation with Mr Blair's overture among a number of delegates, Liberal Democrat party chiefs were yesterday expressing private satisfaction at the interest being shown by another party.

They and Mr Ashdown are determined to exploit to the full the window of opportunity to set out their policy stall. And those party spokesmen who attacked Labour were yesterday under instruction to ensure they did so on areas where this served to highlight a clear Liberal Democrat policy alternative.

While there were claims that Mr Blair's unexpected olive branch had overshadowed the conference, party aides insisted that the overall mood would provide a "real launch platform" for the 18-month pre-election campaign ahead.

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