Campbell silences critics and calls for a 'free, fair and green' Britain

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Indy Politics

Sir Menzies Campbell silenced critics within his party with a spirited closing speech to the Liberal Democrats' conference, in which he predicted that his party would move towards government.

The Liberal Democrat leader began the much tougher task of winning over the voters by making a highly personal 35-minute address designed to tell the public more about himself and allay fears in his party that he might be seen as too old by the time of the next general election.

His allies hailed the Brighton conference as a "turning point" for the Liberal Democrats, because their leader had cleared the crucial hurdle of winning approval for a tax package which dropped the long-standing pledge to impose a 50p-in-the-pound top rate.

Sir Menzies won a genuinely warm five-minute standing ovation after telling his party: "The British people will vote for us in greater numbers still. But only if we show that we practise the politics of substance, just as we did in that great tax debate on Tuesday. And only if we show we are the party of opportunity."

His objective was "nothing less than to complete the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party of opposition into a party of government," he said. But he stopped short of predicting that the third party could sweep to power at the next election, setting the more realistic goal of moving "towards government."

Sir Menzies said the tax package was "only the start" of a programme to build a society that was "free, fair and green". But he appeared to send a mixed message on tax. He said: "We will reward ambition and aspiration - not penalise effort. We will not raise the overall level of taxation." At the same time, he said some people would pay more, with the "very wealthy" losing their generous pension tax subsidies, and tax breaks on capital gains would be removed.

The 65-year-old party leader, who described himself as being in "youthful middle age", made a virtue out of his experience as he made the "politics of substance" his party's main selling point.

He contrasted that with a Conservative Party that was "a substance-free zone" and a "Blair-Brown Government" which had squandered the opportunity of three election victories and whose legacy would be a widening gap between rich and poor; higher taxes but little improvement in public services, with hospital wards closing and doctors and nurses losing their jobs.

Sir Menzies attacked Labour's record on civil liberties, claiming it believed that "terrorism should be tackled by taking away personal freedoms".

While the Liberal Democrats would support giving extra powers to the police and security services that were truly justified, he said terrorism thrived when civil liberties were denied and accused the Government of alienating the very communities it needed on its side.

His harshest words were reserved for the David Cameron. He demanded that the Conservative leader apologise for voting in favour of the Iraq war on the eve of the conflict in 2003 and for writing his party's manifesto at last year's general election - "one of the most reactionary, unpleasant, right-wing" of modern times.

Filling in what allies admitted were gaps in the public's knowledge of him, the Liberal Democrat leader said: "I was born in a tenement in Glasgow. My parents worked hard to provide me with the opportunities they never had. My father wanted to be a doctor, but couldn't afford to go to university.

"So they saw to it that I got the chances they did not. But opportunity should not be an accident of birth. It must be open to everyone in Britain."

He said he had had three great opportunities in his life - in sport, the law and politics. "And now I have been give one more - the opportunity to lead our party from opposition towards government".

Seeking to dispel his patrician image, he said he knew the real value of public services because his education, the sports facilities where he trained as an athlete and the health treatment he recently received for cancer, were all paid for by the state.

"Some people of my generation yearn for the years gone by. Some mourn for what is past. But not me. I hunger for what is to come -for what is possible. We should have no fear of the future. Rather, we should relish the challenges ahead," he said.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was no mention of his predecessor Charles Kennedy, whose farewell speech to the conference on Tuesday did not upstage Sir Menzies, as some Liberal Democrats had feared. Mr Kennedy refused the offer of a public handshake with Sir Menzies, and some Kennedy allies continue to believe that, as his deputy, Sir Menzies could have done more to halt the moves by his frontbenchers to remove him as leader in January.

Are you pleased with your leader?

"I was very fond of Charles Kennedy, but I think it was inevitable we would get a new leader. The party is in a much better position than we could have expected at the beginning of the year; people are very optimistic and can see the way ahead."

Ann Shaw, Rickmansworth, Herts

"The parliamentary party acted dishonourably, they stabbed Charles in the back. But I thought Ming's speech was excellent - it wasn't as exciting or charismatic as Charles last year, but we have a new style of substance in British politics."

Mohammed Shafiq, Rochdale

"Ming has had a lot of stick recently but he has improved. We have overcome the slump in the polls as a result of events this year. I'm pleased we have found a new leader who built on the good work Charles Kennedy did in his time."

Ben Herbert, Brighton

"I wasn't happy with the way Charles Kennedy left, but I'm confident about Ming's ability, especially after this week. I liked the set of Ming's face, he looked determined - stand up for human rights, the rule of law at home and abroad, and for the poor and excluded."

Meurig Williams, Bagshot, Surrey

"At this particular moment, I'm pleased we've got a new leader. Ming looked really relaxed and confident. I think he has improved in terms of past performances and, for me, he made all the right points. It's a new start."

Sally Cole, London

"At the time I didn't like the way Charles Kennedy was removed. He has great presence and stature and I hope there will be another role for him. But I think Ming gave one of the best speeches I have ever heard. It fell into place in a way that is quite rare."

Jo Morton, Hexham, Northumberland

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