Lib Dems seek to head off revolt over female MPs

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The Liberal Democrats will seek to head off a revolt this weekend on the eve of the party conference over plans to boost its number of female MPs.

A proposal to ban men from standing in the party's safest parliamentary seats is expected to be watered down by senior figures following accusations that the policy is too "illiberal". The compromise, to be put to a vote, will mean that only 40 per cent of candidates in all seats – including the safest – will have to be women.

The party leader, Charles Kennedy, will restate to delegates at Bournemouth next week his intention to replace the Conservatives as the most "effective opposition" in Parliament while opening the door to moderate pro-European Conservatives to join the Liberal Democrats.

The party will also attack the Government's plans to use the private sector more widely to improve public services. The Liberal Democrats have already been criticised by Norman Baker MP, the party's spokesman on freedom of information, for failing to capitalise on Tory difficulties.

Matthew Taylor, the party's Treasury spokesman, will turn his sights on the Government's Private Finance Initiative proposals by calling for a halt to public-private partnerships unless they are better value than government schemes.

He will blame the Government for squandering millions of pounds on part-privatisation of London Underground. Bob Kiley, appointed by Ken Livingstone to modernise the Tube, will appear with Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, and Sandi Toksvig, the comedian who will lead the party's fundraising drive.

But an emergency debate on the terrorist attacks on America and the military response, introduced by Menzies Campbell MP, the party's foreign affairs and defence spokesman, will mean several scheduled motions, including one on lowering the age for buying pornography, will be cancelled.

Mr Campbell will call for a "precise and proportionate" response to the attacks "consistent with the principles of international law".

* Kenneth Clarke will not attend the Tory party conference in Blackpool because he does not want to be a "poor man's Margaret Thatcher".

"People [would be] chasing me all over Blackpool trying to get me to say some disobliging words about Iain which I would not give," he said.