Ashdown urges target date for EMU

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THE PRIME Minister should put the interests of the country before the Europhobia of Rupert Murdoch, the Liberal Democrats' spring conference was told by Paddy Ashdown in Southport yesterday.

Calling for a stable economic environment, to help create jobs, the Liberal Democrat leader said steady interest rates, tax rates and exchange rates would help business to plan for the long term and grow. But he warned that the Government would have to come off the fence, and stand up to Mr Murdoch, on the single currency if it wanted a more stable exchange rate, lower interest rates and higher investment.

He urged the Government: "Set a target date for Britain's entry into economic and monetary union. Show we're serious about it by following the policies to make that happen ...

"I despair of the Government's timidity on this. Wait and see under the last government seems to have been replaced by waiting for Rupert Murdoch under this ... So to Mr Blair I say: `Don't worry about Mr Murdoch. Put Britain first. The last Prime Minister was a prisoner of Europe, you should be leading on it.'"

Mr Ashdown has already called on the Government to review Mr Murdoch's ownership of the Times in the light of his apparent influence over the paper's coverage of China. In an emergency debate yesterday morning, the conference unanimously backed a motion deploring the HarperCollins decision not to publish former governor Chris Patten's book on Hong Kong. The motion said Mr Murdoch's conduct made it even more important to maintain Lord McNally's amendment to the Competition Bill, challenging the predatory pricing policy of the Times.

The keynote of Mr Ashdown's speech was a call for a more radical approach to job creation, "to connect up the people who desperately need work with the work that desperately needs to be done".

He said it was madness that with four million people wanting work, there was so much work going begging - like doing up derelict property, caring for the elderly and disabled.

The conference, which celebrated a decade of the Liberal Democrat party also passed a resolution giving Mr Ashdown the room for manoeuvre to develop the party's relationship with the Government - short of coalition.