Mr Ashdown is expected to underpin his appeal for pluralism in British politics by unveiling a proposal for a new cross-party review on the long-term prospects for the NHS, including rationing.
The move is in line with a warning by Mr Ashdown in his pre- conference pamphlet, Making Change our Ally, that 'greater efficiency in the NHS will not avoid the tough decisions about priorities in the future, as rising health care costs come up against the finite limits of public resources'.
He says in his pamphlet that rationing in the NHS has always taken place, but whereas priorities were once decided 'privately by doctors in their surgery', those decisions were now taken by NHS bureaucrats.
The NHS proposal could introduce an unpredictable element into the undercurrent of discussion about Liberal Democrat-
Labour co-operation, and it was not clear last night whether Mr Ashdown expected the Tories to take the proposal seriously. On the face of it, the idea of rationing has more natural appeal to ministers than it does to the Opposition.
Although David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, has floated the idea of a Royal Commission on the problems of health and social support for the elderly, in the run-up to the election Labour could be wary of undermining its lead in public opinion on the health issue by grappling with the idea of limiting some NHS services.
Mr Ashdown will today reinforce his decision last weekend to open the way to an eventual end to 'equidistance' between the parties.
But he will seek to head off unrest about his continuing hopes of an accord with Labour by setting a series of benchmarks by which the the continued modernisation and 'inclusiveness' of Labour can be judged.
Stressing the importance of electoral reform to the Liberal Democrats, he will say that 'talking about pluralism is fine. But the only firm guarantee for pluralism is fair votes'.
Robert Maclennan, the new party president, yesterday clouded the running debate over Mr Ashdown's delicate strategy of exploring common ground with Labour when he included unexpectedly harsh criticism of Tony Blair and Labour.
Senior colleagues last night said that the former Labour minister's remarks were part of a tactic to reassure party sceptics that the former SDP wing was not seeking to rush into a pre-election accord.
Mr Maclennan complained that Labour had lost its old strengths and that the party's 'new creed' was opportunism. While reaffirming the Liberal Democrats' commitment to 'dialogue', he insisted the party did not want pacts or deals or talks about 'post-electoral arrangements'.
Today, Mr Ashdown will couple a strong defence of his party's Europeanism with a call on both Labour and the Tories to back a referendum on the conclusions of the inter-governmental conference on the future of the EU, in 1996. And after a week of leadership defeats and volatile conference debates, Mr Ashdown will warn party members of the need for self- discipline with a declaration that 'politics is a dangerous game'.
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