The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Ashdown reprimands 'man of straw' Lamont

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Indy Politics
PADDY ASHDOWN took his opportunity to attack the Prime Minister's lack of leadership over the economy and Europe yesterday, but pledged his support for action that would see Britain return to the European exchange rate mechanism and continuing European unity, even in the event of an unravelling of the Maastricht treaty.

At the same time he urged Labour to join the Liberal Democrats as a 'force for change', playing their part in Britain's 'new politics'.

'When people find that they can no longer trust the most solemn words of our national leaders, that the pledges of our Prime Minister are worthless, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a man of straw, small wonder that they feel betrayed,' Mr Ashdown said in his closing address to the party's Harrogate conference.

But in a speech spotlighting the dilemma of the role of the third party, Mr Ashdown refrained from calling for the resignation of Norman Lamont, the Chancellor. He said that the Prime Minister could rely on his party's support until the sterling crisis passed if he made a statement to end the 'drift and inertia' that had caused it by promising that Britain would eventually rejoin the exchange rate mechanism, and took steps to make the Bank of England independent.

The Prime Minister should scotch growing opinion in his own party that there was any refuge for Britain outside a strong currency system, Mr Ashdown said.

Mr Major yesterday replied to Mr Ashdown's request for a meeting between all three party leaders by saying that next week's recall of Parliament was sufficient. The Prime Minister left the way open for Mr Ashdown to meet him for a private discussion on confidential Privy Council terms, an opportunity described by Mr Ashdown as 'not the response I was hoping for'.

In his speech yesterday, Mr Ashdown reminded the Prime Minister that the Government was henceforth on borrowed time. 'They have lost the confidence of the markets. They have lost the confidence of our partners. But above all, they have lost the confidence of this country.'

But while the 'party of devaluation' would be held to account, the first concern had to be for the victims of its failures, he said - a stance that contrasted with that of Alan Beith, Treasury spokesman, who urged that voters should be given the opportunity to get rid of a discredited government.

As some conference representatives continued to voice private concerns yesterday about the risk of evoking the 'fear of Labour' syndrome, Mr Ashdown took the opportunity to consolidate Wednesday's conference decision that the Liberal Democrats should work with people of 'all parties and of none', saying: 'We know how to compete; we must also show that we know how to co- operate.'

It was the role of Liberal Democrats to unleash new ideas. 'That is why, yesterday, we were right to decide that our ideas, so desperately needed by our time, are nevertheless worthless unless we use the opportunities to put them into practice.'

Labour had proved to be an ineffective opposition to the Government's inactivity over the economy, Mr Ashdown said. The party now stood at a crossroads.

To applause, he warned John Smith not to treat electoral reform as 'an issue on which you move only grudgingly and reluctantly after the last iota of party gain has been carefully measured. The great Reform Acts were not carried by narrow party advantage; but by justice, democracy and the national interest.'

Mr Ashdown, urging the Liberal Democrats to become the 'opportunity party', said opportunity was the cause that would dominate politics in the decade. He said: 'There may be some who think that opportunity is a Tory word. If that is so, then our first task is to reclaim it for the truth . . . For millions in Conservative Britain, opportunity is stifled from the very day they are born - by bad housing, poor health care, underfunded education, lack of training. Conservative opportunity means giving occasional opportunities to the few.'

Mr Ashdown attacked both Mr Major's and Labour's reluctance to lead on the issue of Maastricht, and said the Prime Minister should call an EC summit on Monday if the French voted 'no' in Sunday's referendum, to make it clear that progress towards unity would continue.

(Photograph omitted)