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Sunday, September 19, 1999 Published at 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK

UK Politics

Kennedy warns of Portillo 'extremism'

Michael Portillo is "more extreme" than William Hague on Europe

Charles Kennedy has warned of the danger of the Conservatives becoming still more antagonistic to the European single currency if Michael Portillo takes over as leader.

The Liberal Democrat leader described the former defence secretary - who has put his name forward for the Kensington and Chelsea by-election and is regarded as the darling of the right - as "even more extreme" than William Hague on Europe.

However, his strongest criticism was reserved for the government, which he accused of failing to stand up for its beliefs and lead the argument for scrapping the pound.

[ image: Charles Kennedy: Seeking a cross-party campaign for the euro]
Charles Kennedy: Seeking a cross-party campaign for the euro
At a news conference at the start of the Lib Dem conference in Harrogate, Mr Kennedy again urged all those in favour of the euro to work together.

"We must build a broadly-based alliance to argue more strongly for the euro when the time comes," he said.

But he claimed the government had already missed its best shot at winning the backing of the country to adopt the single currency.

"The referendum probably should've come sooner rather than later after the last election," he said. "Then the Yes camp probably would've won."

Mr Kennedy argued it would be harder to muster enthusiasm for a pro-euro campaign now, but said those opposed to the single currency were presently getting an unopposed ride.

For this reason he said he planned to debate the issue with Mr Portillo at the forthcoming CBI conference.

No Blair commitment on PR

[ image: Tony Blair gave no commitment on PR for local elections]
Tony Blair gave no commitment on PR for local elections
Mr Kennedy denied reports in Sunday's newspaper that he had won a promise from Prime Minister Tony Blair for PR in local elections for England and Wales during a recent meeting between the pair.

"The reports are not accurate," he said. "He did not give a firm commitment."

But he confirmed the issue had come up and said he would continue to press for its extension throughout the United Kingdom now the Scottish Parliament had approved it north of the border.

"It seems to me illogical in the extreme if you are going to accept fair votes for Scotland and not for England and Wales."

'No cloak and dagger machinations'

On the wider issue of co-operation with the government, Mr Kennedy said he did not expect any imminent extension of the remit of the Joint Cabinet Committee on the "purely practical" grounds of lack of time before the next election.

He refused to say if he would take his party out of the JCC if it failed to achieve its aims, including PR for Westminster, but denied taking part in any secret deals.

"There are no cloak and dagger machinations going on of any type," he said.

The Lib Dem leader also confirmed his party is putting itself immediately into election mode, following his victory in the leadership contest to replace Paddy Ashdown.

Implying a thorough clear-out is imminent amongst the party team, stating his new team would need 18 months to establish themselves and their policies in the minds of the public.

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