Charles Kennedy declared there was no limit to his party's ambitions as he launched the Liberal Democrat general election campaign yesterday and claimed his party was now "the real opposition".
The party leader said he was confident of more votes and more seats at the next election and would fight on "a full programme for government" based on tightly costed policies. Mr Kennedy said the Liberal Democrats were "united, principled, ambitious as a national opposition party". He ruled out a coalition with Labour and said it would "be absurd ... to prop up somebody else".
The Lib Dems offered "the politics of hope" while Labour was peddling "the politics of fear". Mr Kennedy accused Tony Blair of "ratcheting up talk of threats, crime and insecurity" and said the Prime Minister had "used up the trust and goodwill of people". He added: "A clear division is emerging in British politics: hope versus fear. We believe government in Britain is there to protect people from terrorism and from the worst criminality; but never at the expense of our civil liberties and the basic tenets of our legal system."
Mr Kennedy said the Liberal Democrats were a united party but "the Blair vs Brown soap opera is splitting the Labour Party".
The Conservatives were also attacked in a confident election kick-off for Mr Kennedy. He said the clock was "striking 13" for the Conservatives who were no longer "a truly national party", adding: "Across a third of the country they are not even in contention anymore. It is the Liberal Democrats who have grown in strength and are growing in support." Mr Kennedy said his priorities were quality local health services, scrapping student tuition fees and providing more nursery-school places. The Liberal Democrats would also end "the unfair council tax" and replace it with a local income tax based on ability to pay.
Mr Kennedy defended the party's policy of tax rises to 50p in the pound for those who earn over £100,000 and said voters "will be presented with a straightforward package which will have a price tag attached".
He added: "Trust is about being straightforward about what we plan to do; about spending taxpayers' money effectively, not wasting it."
He said £5bn of government money would "be redirected from low to high priority areas", with cutbacks in Whitehall bureaucracy, a commitment to scrap the Child Trust Fund, ID cards and "the final stages of the Eurofighter programme".
Asked if the Liberal Democrats would do a deal with Labour to prop up a minority government Mr Kennedy gave his firmest signal yet that he would not enter a coalition with Mr Blair. "Short of a government of national unity if, God forbid, the country finds itself at war, you can take it that the Liberal Democrats in the next House of Commons will be there as an independent political party. Full stop," he said.
Liam Fox, the Conservative co-chairman, said: "The Liberal Democrats ... would offer freedom to criminals, raise 44 unfair taxes, and give more control to Europe."
Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: "The Liberal Democrats' figures simply don't add up."
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