Charles Kennedy yesterday warned Tony Blair that he would be punished by an "angry" British public at the general election.
Calling on the Liberal Democrat party to believe in itself, Mr Kennedy predicted that anger over the war in Iraq would galvanise people to vote against Labour and the Tories in the next general election. He said the war had had "a corrosive effect on politics" and challenged Tony Blair to disclose to MPs whether he had offered President George Bush his support for regime change in Iraq a full year before the war started.
"When Parliament next convenes, the Prime Minister must take the first opportunity to come to the despatch box and make a full statement," he said. "And if the Prime Minister refuses, then the people can make their judgement - because there is the ultimate verdict of the general election itself."
Mr Kennedy also turned his fire on the Tories for failing to provide "constructive and effective questioning" of the executive of the day. "Never again should such supreme prime-ministerial power be allowed to progress without sufficient checks and balances," he said.
The Liberal Democrat leader, who received a six-and-a-half minute ovation from a packed conference hall after his speech to delegates, said voters faced "a stark and serious" choice at the next election.
He made it clear that the Liberal Democrats would not go into an election with an agenda of entering into an electoral pact with the Labour party after the poll. "No nods, no deals, no winks, no stitch-ups," he said. The Tories were finished as a political force in large areas of Britain, he argued, and a vote for the Conservatives would be "a wasted vote".
He used his hour-long key-note speech to set out the Liberal Democrats' campaigning stall and explain what the party stands for. "Freedom. Fairness. Trust. These are our watchwords. These have to be the core principles against which our policies must be measured," he said. "And I believe that they are the principles which match the increasingly liberal instincts and attitudes of 21st-century Britain."
The task now for the Liberal Democrats was "to turn these instinctively liberal attitudes into positive votes for the party of British liberal democracy".
Mr Kennedy outlined his party's policies on health, green issues and the economy, insisting: "The figures add up; the balance sheet is balanced." He said that he wanted "more emphasis than ever before" on preventive medicine and "the promotion of healthy lifestyles". Then, in a light-hearted reference to a bout of ill-health earlier this year, from which he has now recovered, he joked: "If it can work for me, it can work for anyone."
Responding to Michael Howard's pronouncement that he would want to control immigration to Britain, Mr Kennedy made it clear he would not "pander to the lowest common denominator over asylum and immigration". He said: "We have to be prepared to stand out and, if necessary, stand alone, in having no truck with short-term, knee-jerk responses to complex social issues."
But Mr Kennedy drew the loudest cheers from the conference hall when he talked of his "principled, consistent opposition to the war on Iraq". Yesterday morning the party dropped plans to cascade 20,000 balloons over the conference hall after Mr Kennedy's speech because it was deemed inappropriate while Ken Bigley, 62, faced execution by kidnappers in Baghdad. Mr Kennedy said that Mr Bigley and his family were at "the forefront of our thoughts and prayers".
He added that in the UK, there was "a sullen and increasingly angry mood" about the decision to invade Iraq. "Donald Rumsfeld promised shock and awe. What we got was shock and then increasing horror," he said.
He warned that the Iraq war had eroded trust in politics among the British electorate and damaged the UK's standing with its European allies. "What trust today in our political leaders, given what they told us at the time about Iraq?" he asked. "And what kind of corrosive effect does that have on politics generally?"
He said, however, that the "tragic sequence of events over Iraq" should galvanise people to participate in politics and take the opportunity to make their views known through the ballot box.
Mr Kennedy said that ministers had questions to answer about leaked government documents suggesting that Mr Blair was fully behind "regime change" in Iraq a year before the war started.
"Never again must this country be sold an incomplete and flawed prospectus as a basis for unilateral military action without the clear sanction of the United Nations," he said. "Never again must this country be led into war on the basis of questionable intelligence."