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EDITIONS
Sunday, 22 September, 2002, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Government beckons - Kennedy
Charles Kennedy with Liberal Democrat supporters
Recall of Parliament will disrupt conference
The Liberal Democrats could be in government within eight years, the party's leader Charles Kennedy has said.

Mr Kennedy confirmed the view of his chairman Mark Oaten that the "potential is there" for the Liberal Democrats to be the ruling party.

He claimed that Lib Dem views on public services and weighty issues such as Iraq made the party a "more credible" opposition than the Conservatives.

Speaking as his party's conference opened in Brighton, Mr Kennedy stressed that taking pre-emptive action against Iraq without a UN mandate would be "quite wrong".

'Irresponsible notion'

Mr Kennedy argued that he was the first to call for Parliament to return to debate Iraq.

His party was "making all the running" on serious issues while the Conservatives were "a policy-free zone".

He said the Tories were not able to challenge Prime Minister Tony Blair effectively on Iraq because they had already pledged their unequivocal support for the US.

"We certainly don't subscribe to the Conservative view which is that there is a case already for a pre-emptive strike," he said.

"I think that is irresponsible, ill-conceived, ill-thought out."

Domestic agenda

Parliament will be recalled at 1130BST on 24 September, with the long-awaited dossier of evidence against Iraq published at 0800 the same day.

Mr Kennedy, who was briefed by Mr Blair on the issue last Thursday, wants a long debate and MPs will meet until 2200.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy has been briefed on Iraq by Blair
Over the course of the conference, delegates will tackle the subject of the party's approach to public services.

This includes proposals to devolve responsibility for health and education to regional and local government and earmark a specific NHS contribution tax to pay for the health service.

Weapons inspectors

The conference agenda has been re-arranged and most debates have been moved to other days to allow MPs to return to Westminster for the emergency recall of Parliament.

It is the second year running that the conference agenda has been rearranged. Last year, the conference was cut short because it took place in the wake of 11 September.

Mr Kennedy warned that the moral and political authority of the UN must be paramount in any decision to take military action against Iraq.

He said the return of weapons inspectors had to be the number one priority.

Mr Kennedy told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme: "British troops also look to the politicians to take wise judgements based on the best available evidence.

"And that's why this wise judgement can only be properly informed if weapons inspectors, under the mandate of the UN are able to assess the position."

Credibility

Mr Kennedy said it was this stance that showed the Liberal Democrats were the "effective and responsible opposition".

"On the domestic agenda, like the public services, as much as on the international agenda like Iraq, I think we are speaking with a force and a persuasion and a seriousness which does make us out as the more credible of the two opposition parties.

"And I want to see our party continue to maintain and build on that very valuable momentum."

He later insisted: "The potential is there for us to be part of the governance of this country, what form that will take, whether its is seven or eight years."

Women short lists

On Sunday, the party debates the thorny issue of how to attract more women candidates.

Just five of the Lib Dems' 52 MPs are women, and while most delegates agree that number should rise, there are sharp divisions on how that should be achieved.

Delegates will be voting on a proposal to ensure that at least 30% of the party's European election candidates are women.

Last year conference gave the leadership a slap in the face by rejecting calls for all-women shortlists to be used to choose parliamentary candidates.

Mr Kennedy said: "We are not effectively representative of over half the population of this country, so I would like to see the party embrace some form of positive discrimination.

"The key thing is we want cannot sit to one side here and all this situation to develop. I am absolutely determined about that."

Further controversy will arise over a motion for the regulation of pornography. It will make the case for lowering the the age at which people can watch hardcore pornography from 18 to 16.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Vicki Young
"Charles Kennedy says it is his party making all the running on serious issues"
Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy
"We want to see the moral as well as the political authority of the UN remain paramount in the Iraq crisis"

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20 Sep 02 | Politics
20 Sep 02 | Politics

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