Blair will never regain popularity because of Iraq, says Kennedy

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Tony Blair has reached the high water mark of his premiership and will never reclaim the support and popularity he once held, especially because of his stance on Iraq, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said yesterday.

Mr Kennedy said in an interview with The Independent that Mr Blair's MPs have had severe misgivings about the Government's programme, which also include concerns over top-up fees for students that would increase the cost of attending university.

The Prime Minister has publicly criticised Mr Kennedy over the past four weeks, claiming that Liberal Democrat spending plans do not add up. Mr Kennedy, in turn, has accused Mr Blair of making "deliberately stupid" claims about the Liberal Democrat policies which are "a caricature of reality".

In an obvious cooling of relations between the two men, the Liberal Democrat leader said he wanted to have out the argument over his party's spending commitments.

The Labour party has highlighted 70 Liberal Democrat spending pledges which it claims have not been costed. Mr Blair has also repeatedly attacked the Liberal Democrat leader's arithmetic at Prime Minister's question time in several acrimonious exchanges.

Mr Kennedy indicated yesterday that the gloves were off on the issue and he was prepared "to go 15 rounds or more" with Mr Blair in defence of his Liberal Democrat spending plans, even if the battle continued until the next election.

The Liberal Democrat leader insisted that his party has checked all of its policies. Mr Kennedy is particularly irritated by the Prime Minister's claim that the Liberal Democrats want to distribute compulsory cod liver oil to every person in Britain.

Mr Kennedy said: "It was a throwaway aside in a debate about rickets increasing in children. We have never said we want to give people cod liver oil.

"He is guilty of gross misrepresentation about our position on a number of issues and we are going to take him on. It doesn't annoy, it engages me. There's an argument to be had here. As far as I am concerned [if] it goes on to next June and the election takes place then that's fine."

Mr Kennedy said Mr Blair was targeting the Liberal Democrats because he was on the defensive, with Labour's poll ratings having dropped and those of the Liberal Democrats having risen.

"I think that he is in [a] more aggressive mode both with Michael Howard and myself, because I think he thinks he's got more of a fight on his hands, and he is right," Mr Kennedy said.

Mr Kennedy said that most Labour backbenchers felt very uneasy about charging students for university. They instinctively preferred Liberal Democrat proposals to increase taxes for the super-rich to subsidise university places. "You can see the sense of the penny dropping with a lot of these Labour backbenchers," Mr Kennedy said.

Mr Kennedy said Mr Blair has reached the apogee of his premiership and his capital was becoming exhausted. "After six years - particularly the year that we have just had with Iraq and everything else - the Prime Minister has siphoned off a lot of his own support and kudos," he said.

"And somehow you can never go back on that. You cannot reverse that situation."

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