Cardiff, Wales Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader who hopes to be Britain's next prime minister, said Friday that Tony Blair is a liar -- about the quality of prewar intelligence and about the weakness of the legal case for the invasion to bring down Saddam Hussein.
"I'm not criticizing him (Blair) for going to war. I'm criticizing him for not telling the truth and for not having a plan" for securing the peace afterward, Howard said.
"He has a track record of not telling the truth. That's why character and trust are an issue in this election."
Howard, the Tories' third leader since Blair took office in 1997 in a landslide victory, has attacked the government on several fronts -- immigration, crime, health and the decision to go to war -- without denting the government's lead in opinion polls.
Howard's focus on Iraq is compromised by his own support for the war, and his stance that he would have supported the Bush administration even if he'd known Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction.
But Howard clearly sees political capital in questioning whether voters can trust Blair -- a tactic that could pay off, either by rallying his party or making disenchanted Labor supporters stay home on election day.
In a poll published Friday in The Guardian newspaper, 44 percent of the sample agreed the prime minister was a liar, compared with 29 percent who felt the same about Howard.
The war became a major campaign issue this week as Atty. Gen. Lord Goldsmith's advice on the legality of the conflict was leaked in part, then released in full by the prime minister's office.
The memo, which Blair had refused to disclose for two years, revealed Goldsmith's doubts about the legality of going to war without a second U.N. Security Council resolution. That contrasted with his publicly disclosed summary days later that said a second resolution was not necessary.
Until Blair released the text Thursday, Howard said, "we didn't know that the advice was full of caveats and warnings. We didn't know that it changed so much."
Former Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock said he feared the dispute over Iraq had knocked the party's campaign off course with just days to go before Thursday's vote.
"It is a massive diversion of the campaign for reasons which are understandable -- it's a question of war and peace and the conduct of government, so there is a legitimate matter in any general election in a democracy," Kinnock said.