Campbell urges Lib Dems to quit comfort zone

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Sir Menzies Campbell has issued a provocative challenge to the Liberal Democrats to abandon the "comfort zone of opposition politics" and take the tough decisions that will demonstrate their readiness for high office.

On the eve of his first conference as leader, which begins today in Brighton, he insisted that his party faced "terrific opportunities", but he accused it of being too fond of opposing unpopular government policies at the expense of credible alternatives.

The party leadership is braced for a bruising battle over plans to drop the party's traditional commitment to a 50p top rate of income tax. It also fears criticism of moves to toughen its stance on law and order.

Sir Menzies has warned that it needs to press ahead with policies demonstrating its commitment to social justice.

He said: "In the outside world, the pace of social, economic and environmental change is without precedent. Caution and consolidation will not be an adequate response for Britain or for the Liberal Democrats."

His plea for "new thinking" came in a foreword to Britain After Blair, a collection of essays published by the liberal think-tank CentreForum, in which senior Liberal Democrats set out their vision of the future.

Sir Menzies wrote: "If we want a fairer Britain, we must accept social justice requires economic prosperity, and economic discipline.

"This means difficult choices will have to be made, which will require us to move out of the comfort zone of opposition politics. We must spend less time opposing what is unpopular and more time setting out what we think is right and deliverable."

He argued that the tax system must be made "fairer and simpler", difficult decisions taken on public spending including pension reform, and a new approach adopted to the "scourge of antisocial behaviour, violent crime and terrorism".

Above all, he said, politicians have a duty to bequeath a "clean and safe world" to their grandchildren through radical environmental policies.

The toughest test for Sir Menzies comes on Tuesday, when the conference debates the leadership's plans for an overhaul of Liberal Democrat tax policies.

It wants to cut income tax rates across the board, financed by new environmental taxes and cuts in capital gains and pension tax reliefs. But a backlash is growing against the proposal to cut the commitment to the 50p top tax rate led by Evan Harris, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, who argues that the party's tax proposals would "be more progressive with a 50p top rate tax and our fairness message would be more easily communicated".

Sir Menzies will tell the conference on Thursday that the party has to produce concrete policies in contrast, he will argue, to the "spin" adopted by the Tories under David Cameron.