William Hague was accused of being a "bogus leader" last night when the Tories and Liberal Democrats swapped bitter insults ahead of tomorrow's Romsey by-election.
In the most personalised exchanges between the two men to date, Charles Kennedy claimed Mr Hague's hardline policies on asylum and immigration and law and order were a desperate bid to win votes.
The Tory leader countered that the Liberal Democrats themselves were the real extremists of British politics, out of touch with the public on the euro, crime and refugees.
The exchanges came as the Liberals poured scores of party workers into Romsey to try to pull off a spectacular victory over the Tories tomorrow.
The Hampshire seat is rock-solid Conservative territory and the party is defending a majority of 8,585 won by the late Michael Colvin at the last general election.
But the Liberal Democrats claim their candidate, Sandra Gidley, has a strong chance of winning the seat in what would be a severe embarrassment to Mr Hague's leadership.
At a rally in Romsey last night, Mr Kennedy said Mr Hague had dragged his party to the right and was engaged in a desperate attempt to grab tabloid headlines to win votes. The Liberal Democrat leader accused his counterpart of pandering to racism with his policies to lock asylum-seekers in detention centres and his warning that the National Front would become more popular unless action was taken.
"Pandering to prejudice is the only shot left in Mr Hague's locker. He is a desperate man and desperate men will do desperate things. But that doesn't mean they're right," he said. "He likes to throw the term bogus at those whom he dislikes. I call him bogus. A bogus leader of a bogus Opposition offering bogus solutions to bogus problems."
Mr Kennedy said that many "decent" Conservatives were appalled at Mr Hague's language and approach and alleged that the Tory leader would create an "illiberal, narrow, vengeful regime".
Mr Hague's attempts to propose changes to the law on self- defence in response to the Tony Martin case were a further example of political opportunism, he said.
Mr Hague retorted that Mr Kennedy was himself extreme by ignoring the everyday concerns of the public and leading "crackpot Liberals" to the fringes of the political debate.
The Tory leader said that the Conservatives were simply reflecting the feelings of the "great mainstream majority" of the British public and claimed his opponents were out of touch on Europe, crime and asylum.
"With their crackpot views and extremist policies, the Liberals are fast becoming a lone voice of insanity in British politics," Mr Hague said.
"The Liberal Democrats set themselves against the instincts of the British people. Soft on crime, soft on bogusasylum-seekers, committed to a federal Europe, they speak for no one, not even their own supporters."
Mr Kennedy was at the head of a motley coalition of left-wing pressure groups who insisted that the United Kingdom should become "an even softer touch" on asylum, he said.Reuse content