Kennedy calls PM to account over Iraq war

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Tony Blair should consider his position if he cannot fully explain why he took Britain to war in Iraq despite warnings about the aftermath, Charles Kennedy said yesterday.

Tony Blair should consider his position if he cannot fully explain why he took Britain to war in Iraq despite warnings about the aftermath, Charles Kennedy said yesterday.

During a wide-ranging question and answer session chaired by Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent, the Liberal Democrat leader called for a phased withdrawal of British troops from Iraq after a democratic government was elected. He also declared the Liberal Democrats would not "prop up" Labour in the event of a hung parliament after the next election.

Asked whether the Prime Minister should resign over revelations that he was warned about the aftermath of the war, Mr Kennedy said Mr Blair must answer "the extremely serious catalogue of charges that are mounting against him", referring to reports that Mr Blair had been warned before the war, in letters from the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, about concerns over its aftermath.

The Liberal Democrat leader called on Mr Blair to give an immediate personal statement when Parliament returns next month. Asked whether he would call on Mr Blair to resign, Mr Kennedy said: "Unless he can give a very definitive account I think his position as Prime Minister would be so tarnished that he would effectively be immobilised in that office. If that is the legacy and the verdict of history he would be happy with I think at that point he would start considering his own position."

The conference backed a motion condemning the war as "based on misleadingly presented and falsely interpreted intelligence" and criticising the decision to make the former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, head of MI6.

Mr Kennedy warned that the Liberal Democrats would not back a minority Labour government. He said: "The only way the issue of Labour even comes into focus is if Labour went into the next election - they have got a three-figure parliamentary majority - and emerged as the largest single party. That would represent an absolutely massive vote of no-confidence in the present Labour government.

"If we have increased our credibility and our level of support in terms of votes and seats, are we going to turn round to the British people and say we are going to prop up a Labour government that you have effectively dismissed? I think not."

Mr Kennedy also admitted that he had changed his lifestyle after the ill health that kept him away from the Commons during the Budget statement earlier this year. He said: "I had a very nasty bout of ill-health indeed, which fuelled a whole lot of stuff which was printed and innuendo and rumours and all the rest. That's water off a duck's back to me.

"However, I am conscious of that fact that I am nearing 45 ... I think in an exposed job like this you have to look after yourself more carefully."

Any questions? Leader is put in the hot seat

Q John Fraser from Croydon: The Liberal Democrats have some good policies, but do they yet have a big idea?

A Charles Kennedy: Part of me says woe betide the snake-oil salesman in politics from whatever shade of the spectrum who says here's our big idea which is the answer to all our problems. Having said that ... the big anxiety is the sense of doubt and uncertainty people have on the international stage and increasingly what is going to happen about global warming. What is going to happen to my pension? What is going to happen to my personal security and property? What we are trying to do as a party in addressing that big anxiety is underpinning our whole approach.

Q Simon Kelner: Do you feel you still have a credibility gap in terms of your spending plans? Last week The Daily Telegraph said under Charles Kennedy's benign rule there will be chocolate truffles on every tree and elves will bring us breakfast in bed ... They are the people you need to convince about your spending plans. What will happen if the economy slows down and you don't raise as much money in tax as you would like to? Do you trim your spending plans? These are the answers you have to persuade people of.

A That is undoubtedly right. What Vince Cable and others are doing is applying a very, very stringent slide rule to each and every commitment we are entering into ... We have got to be disciplined in each and every field that we are aspiring to improve things through savings from central government.

Q Nicola Chubb from Bournemouth: Would you support war crimes charges against Blair and Bush and their representative governments?

A No, I would not jump to that conclusion. When the Commons reconvenes after the conference season, given the apparent glaring discrepancies between what the Prime Minister said at the time and what apparently had been said to the Americans long before the issue came to the House of Commons, he should come to the dispatch box on day one and make a statement absolutely explaining himself and his conduct.

Q Simon Kelner: Do you now think we should bring the troops back?

A Not as of yet. Those troops should be confined to our existing area of operation. They should only safeguard existing troops and should be under British command and control, not American. All of that should work in tandem with a planned withdrawal of British forces as the democratic timetable unrolls.

Q Simon Kelner: You have said throughout this period that Tony Blair has acted with integrity, has acted honestly. In the light of what we have seen over the weekend, the leaked documents, has your position changed? Do you think Tony Blair should resign?

A I do not think we have reached the resignation issue yet until he has been in front of the House of Commons and given the account I am seeking.

Q Simon Kelner: If these documents are proven to be true would you then call for him to resign?

A Unless he can give a very definitive account I think his position as Prime Minister would be so tarnished that he would effectively be immobilised in that office. If that is the legacy and the verdict of history he would be happy with I think at that point he would start considering his own position.

Q Andrew Toye, East Devon: In the light of pronouncements by "the Young Turks" do you sympathise with John Major, who complained of there being "bastards'' in his cabinet?

A I don't quite see the two events as being entirely comparable. I think the idea of The Orange Book was a good idea. The timing may not have been the most fortuitous but it was in the pipeline quite some way out.

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