Charles Kennedy: They had the cheek to call me 'Charlie Chamberlain'

This has brought home just what the Tories are prepared to do or say to get back into power
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The Independent Online

The most revealing exit strategy in town is the determination of the Conservatives to extricate themselves from their share of responsibility for the tragedy now taking place in Iraq. Michael Howard's shameless U-turn, unveiled in this newspaper yesterday, must not be allowed to succeed.

The Conservative party leadership - although, by no means, all senior Conservative politicians - were the principal cheerleaders for a pre-emptive war in Iraq, dismissing the United Nations even before the Bush administration adopted this as official policy. The Tories were derisive of those of us arguing the alternative case; I recall being labelled "Charlie Chamberlain" both inside and outside Parliament.

Michael Howard protests that it is his right, indeed his duty, to ask "legitimate questions about the conduct of events in Iraq now". Certainly. But "now" for the Conservatives is far too late. It is too late also for the lives of British servicemen and women already lost and too late for the thousands of innocent (and uncounted) Iraqi citizens killed.

The reality is that during the key period, when political and diplomatic will could have averted our involvement in this disastrous war, the Conservatives failed manifestly in their role of responsible parliamentary opposition.

There are two interpretations of Michael Howard's current efforts to reposition his party over Iraq. The first is that he never really subscribed to the official line - which does not reflect well either on his clout or conviction as a member of their Shadow Cabinet. The second - as elections loom on 10 June - is that this is a case of the most cynical and blatant opportunism.

Actually he has tried almost everything else when it comes to Iraq. Knowing he would be laughed at if he criticised Tony Blair's decision to go to war, he pre-empted the findings of the Hutton inquiry, counter-productively, by accusing the Prime Minister of lying. He acquiesced readily in participating in the Butler enquiry, only to cut and run when he realised the error of his ways. Now, suddenly, he is asking for all transatlantic dirty washing between President Bush and Blair to be put on full public display. This isn't mature - nor is it wise - opposition politics; and it will fool very few. The public memory is neither as short nor as shallow as Mr Howard presumably hopes.

For weeks now I have been criss-crossing Britain as part of the 10 June election campaigns. The dismay I encounter over Iraq is palpable. Mention the Government and the response is likely to be one of disgust; mention the Conservatives and the reaction is derision. What the public is judging us politicians by is consistency.

On the key issue facing us now - which is not why we went to war, but what do we do in this unstable aftermath - I continue to press the Government on its strategy. Having failed to listen to the country in the run-up to the war, the least Tony Blair could do now is to engage the public with an open and candid explanation of what comes next.

I have urged him to internationalise this situation. We must engage the UN and other nations to re-establish the trust of the Iraqi people which has been so wantonly destroyed by the heavy-handed tactics of the US forces. We must give Lakhdar Brahimi our strongest backing as he tries to form a transitional government. We must persuade the Americans that the 30 June handover of power is a genuine acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the Iraqi people. That is why I extracted the commitment at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday that the new authority would have power over oil revenues and prisons.

I began asking the Prime Minister, a month ago, what will happen to British troops after 30 June? I have said that there must be a new status of forces agreement and they must not answer to US commanders. I have also been explicit in demanding that there should be no expansion of troop numbers unless British commanders in Iraq have asked for them in order to carry out our current legal and moral obligations as an occupying power.

What would be totally unacceptable would be for us to send additional troops to undertake the kind of aggressive and disproportionate responses which we have seen from the American forces in Najaf and Fallujah. We will not win Iraqi hearts and minds that way; and we will not help to ease that country towards the stable and democratic future that it deserves.

In June, I shall have been in the House of Commons for 21 years. It's an anniversary I share with Michael Howard and Tony Blair. We were all elected for the first time in 1983 and have observed the vicissitudes of British politics since then together.

Though the youngest party leader of the three, I thought there was little about our political system that could shock me. But this has brought home just what the Tories are prepared to do or say to get back into power.

For months, Labour has been concentrating on Mr Howard's past ministerial track record as a negative campaigning tactic. By the time of the next general election, his current form will probably suffice.

The writer is leader of the Liberal Democrat Party

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