Lib Dems to focus on Iraq in campaign's final stretch

Charles Kennedy will break his silence over the Iraq war tomorrow, in a speech warning that the issue is one that no Labour or Tory candidate can duck.

The Liberal Democrat leader is meeting his senior colleagues later today, in the Cannizaro House Hotel in Wimbledon, to plan a strategy for making the Iraq issue central to the final days of the election campaign.

Many of his supporters will greet the news with a silent "about time too" after grumblings that the Liberal Democrats appeared to be avoiding an issue on which they have widespread support.

But in a television interview last night, a member of Mr Kennedy's front bench, Simon Hughes, said that it had been a conscious strategy to save Iraq until the last week, to avoid the impression that the Liberal Democrats had nothing to say on domestic matters.

Mr Hughes told the Morgan and Platell Channel 4 programme that the party had planned all along to use the first two weeks of the campaign to put across its policies for caring for the elderly, scrapping student tuition fees and replacing the council tax with a local income tax.

Mr Kennedy's speech tomorrow will be followed by a rally in Cambridge on Tuesday of which opposition to the Iraq war will be a major feature.

The Tories, who backed the Iraq war at the time, also moved on to the attack yesterday over Tony Blair's handling of the conflict.

Michael Howard claimed that Mr Blair's character has become an election issue, and the Conservative foreign affairs spokesman, Michael Ancram, sent a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that he clarify his role in the public naming of Dr David Kelly.

But Michael Howard is himself under attack from fellow Tories, who say he committed two big tactical blunders that have stalled the Conservative election campaign. The first was to say too much about immigration, and the second was to concentrate too much on projecting himself.

At least one shadow minister has grimly forecast that the Tories could emerge in two weeks facing another three-figure Labour majority in the Commons. Canvas returns are showing that people who have voted Conservative in the past are committed to supporting them again - but they are picking up an insignificant number of new voters.

Paul Baverstock, a former director of communications at Tory headquarters, has suggested that the problem is that Mr Howard has taken on a role that he is not big enough to fill. Writing for The Independent on Sunday, Mr Baverstock described the Tory leader as "a character actor cast in a leading role". He added: "Michael Howard is not a sympathetic figure and floating voters don't like him. It's as simple as that."

Other Tories have been angered by advertisements placed by Conservative campaign headquarters in local newspapers covering marginal constituencies, giving figures for how much asylum-seekers had allegedly cost the local council. A full-page advertisement in the Coventry Evening Telegraph said that asylum-seekers had cost Coventry council £8,892,000, adding: "Imagine five more years of it!" But Andy Matchet, a leading Coventry Tory councillor with responsibility for housing asylum-seekers, told yesterday's Evening Telegraph: "I think this is stupid and wrong. It's wrong because I've absolutely no idea where you can get a figure that's quoted to the nearest £2,000."

Mr Howard has been warned privately by his own ministers that by campaigning so persistently on the immigration issue, he has given the impression that the party has nothing else to offer.

But the Tory leader returned to the attack in a speech in Hastings yesterday. "Immigration and asylum are out of control," he said.

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