Paddy Ashdown yesterday readied the Liberal Democrats for the possibility of an autumn general election, emphasising the party's distinct message and warning of a "new state-sponsored morality" under Labour.
Addressing his party's spring conference in Nottingham, Mr Ashdown said the new left's ideas on "reshaping Britain in the image of Singapore" started well but ended by telling people how to live their lives.
Emma Nicholson, the Tory MP who defected to the Lib Dems, was given a standing ovation after she mocked John Major as "completely at sea over Europe".
Turning the Prime Minister's "white coats" jibe at the Eurosceptic Sir Richard Body, Ms Nicholson said sometimes Mr Major wanted a slow lane Europe and sometimes a fast one. "On another occasion he wanted a Europe of variable geometry, whatever that is. Perhaps HE needs the men in white coats," she said.
The Prime Minister's vision of Europe was not determined by what was best for Britain but what was achievable within the constraints of the divisions within the Tory party, the MP for Torridge and West Devon said. "That's a real black hole."
The conference approved a package of reforms to strengthen the democratic machinery of the European Union and endorsed Mr Ashdown's promise of a referendum should the inter-governmental conference propose constitutional change.
In a more radical move, the party dropped its commitment to free education for all. By 516 votes to 302 members approved a policy under which students would pay back some of their maintenance costs. The state and employers would also contribute. Tuition would stay free.
Mr Ashdown increasingly believes Mr Major could opt for an autumn election. While yesterday's speech fell short of a full rallying cry it was intended to put the party on "general election alert". He commended the notion of "self-reliant individuals", well-educated and with their freedoms guaranteed by a Bill of Rights, but underpinned by strong communities in a revived civic culture.
Attacking both the new right and new left, he said the former wanted to recreate the United States in Britain. But with US solutions came US problems of ghetto poverty for many and a citadel life-style for the few. "There are already too many signs in this country of widening social rifts and growing social tensions."
Meanwhile the new left wanted to create a new state-sponsored morality. To start with, the ideas were perfectly good, he said, community-based projects, residents helping older neighbours and the promotion of social cohesion. But it ended by telling people how to live and by limiting freedom of speech.
t Mr Ashdown, a former Royal Marine, told a fringe meeting how a soldier to whom he owed his life had been forced to leave the services because he was gay.
Speaking at the launch of a Liberal Democrat Guarantee to Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, Mr Ashdown underlined the party's opposition to the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces.
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