The battle lines for the Liberal Democrat leadership contest were drawn yesterday with Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, the two contenders, staking out their ground on the left and right wings of the party.
Mr Clegg rejected suggestions by the Huhne camp that he is a Liberal Democrat clone of David Cameron, the Conservative leader, who described himself as a "liberal Conservative".
"What I am going to try to show is that he is a false liberal. Dare I say it – David Cameron is Clegg Lite," said Mr Clegg.
Mr Huhne, a former economics spokesman, plans to present himself as the best candidate to take on Gordon Brown over the economy. His campaign, to be launched next week, will be based on traditional Liberal values of social fairness, while Mr Clegg's campaign will call for economic liberalism.
"The key characteristic for our leader next time is going to be who can take on both David Cameron and Gordon Brown; who has the background to be able to handle economics in an authoritative manner, when the housing market is on the turn," Mr Huhne told The Independent.
He said Mr Brown could hold the general election "not in 2009, but possibly in 2010, before the economic cycle has worked through and there is an upturn".
Mr Huhne, the party's environment spokesman, added: "I think my background in terms of the specialities I have done means I am more comfortable on what is likely to be quite an important agenda over the next few years – the economic agenda."
"The green agenda, I have done. That is great, because I have been able to bring a certain hard-edged economic background to the policy measures that are necessary to bring low carbon emissions. Ultimately, one of the most important subjects is the economy. As Bill Clinton said – 'It's the economy, stupid'."
Mr Clegg, who used to work for Tory peer Lord Brittan, when he was one of Britain's EU commissioners in Brussels, appeared astonished yesterday when he was asked on BBC radio whether he was essentially a Conservative. "Me? I find it a laughable suggestion," he said. "I am a Liberal. I wasn't born into a political party. I am a Liberal by conviction, by temperament, by choice. I have only ever voted for this party, and no other." He said Mr Cameron was claiming to be a liberal Conservative. "I will show you can't be half pregnant, you can't be a liberal only in what you say. You also have to be a liberal in what you do."
He warned the party that they had to do more than repeat the policies with which they felt comfortable. He stressed he was not suggesting jettisoning principles, but unless they appealed to a wider electorate, they would sink back to their present low position in the opinion polls where they could be wiped out at the next general election.
Supporters of the two men insisted there was little difference between them, and the splits during the contest, which ends on 16 December, would be more over tone than substance. Meanwhile, Ladbrokes, the bookmaker, cut the odds on Mr Clegg – regarded as the more telegenic – to win the contest, from 2/5 to 1/3. The Sheffield Hallam MP has been the bookies' favourite since Sir Menzies Campbell vacated the position on Monday. The odds on Mr Huhne were eased to 9/4, from 7/4, underlining expectations that the contest will be close.