Leadership candidates try to focus debate on policy

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Indy Politics

The Liberal Democrat leadership candidates tried to shift the debate away from scandal and on to the party's policies ahead of the first official hustings of the campaign in Plymouth today.

Bookmakers lengthened the odds of a victory by Simon Hughes to 11/2, in the wake of his admission that he had had relationships with men and women. These were the longest odds since the leadership race began, making Mr Hughes the third-placed outsider behind Sir Menzies Campbell and Chris Huhne.

Sir Menzies gave his backing to Mr Hughes, declaring that "sexuality is no bar to public office of any kind". But he added: "What concerns people - housing, education, transport and health - these are the real issues that affect people's lives, and we want an election campaign which focuses on this and gives the Liberal Democrats an opportunity to restore a sense of opportunity and purpose.

"I think the public, looking at parties and wondering who should be a party leader, are entitled to look for three things. Energy - and I believe I have plenty of that - and values. What do they believe in, what are their principles? And finally - what is their judgement? I think on all three of these issues, I would pass muster," Sir Menzies said.

Mr Huhne, who is now second favourite with the bookies, spent yesterday talking to student supporters at Oxford, pressing his case for greater local power. He said: "It is unbelievable that there are targets for everything in the NHS; even carpet care is set by Whitehall. This must be stopped. I want to see a system where decisions are always taken at the level closest to the people affected by them. In the case of public services, that means distributing the power of the central state back to a more local level."

Mr Hughes attempted to draw a line under revelations about his private life. He set out his stall as the most left-wing of the candidates, pledging not to drop plans to impose a new 50 per cent tax rate on the highest earners. His rivals have hinted that they would drop the policy in favour of green taxes and other taxes on the wealthy. But Mr Hughes said: "A country where the poorest pay more of their income in tax than the rich can never be seen as fair. We were absolutely right at the last election to propose a higher rate of tax for those most able to pay, to fund our priority programmes and to cut the tax burden for those on low incomes. I remain absolutely committed to this principle."

He added: "At the last election we campaigned to abolish taxes in learning and caring, tuition fees and personal care charges, and were open and honest about funding that commitment. That is exactly the sort of principled, practical and popular policy we should keep and promote."

Asked if he had lost public trust, he said: "I am very clear that what the public want is to know the policies people put forward are put forward honestly, that the sums that are given to them to explain how much they cost are costed honestly and that the campaigns we run are carried out honestly."

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