'The public are able to distinguish between real and phoney liberals', says Campbell

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Indy Politics

Sir Menzies Campbell has branded David Cameron as a "phoney" liberal and said the Conservative Party could have prevented British involvement in the Iraq war if they had opposed it.

In an interview with The Independent yesterday, the Liberal Democrat leader launched his strongest attack on Mr Cameron amid concern in his party that the revived Tories are occupying the Liberal Democrats' natural ground on issues such as the environment and foreign affairs.

Last week, the Tory leader described himself a "liberal Conservative" and not a "neo-conservative" as he distanced his party from the Bush administration. Although Mr Cameron had private misgivings about the Iraq conflict, he did not join the 16 Tory MPs who voted against the war in March 2003.

The support of the Opposition allowed Tony Blair to win the critical Commons vote on military action. Sir Menzies said: "The time for reservations about American foreign policy was 18 March 2003. But where were the Tories? Where was the liberalism that is now espoused?

"We would have beaten the Government - and Blair would have resigned. It is hard to see how he would have stayed on having made the speech he did."

He added: "The point about liberalism in foreign affairs is not being liberal after the event when you think you have got public opinion with you. The real test is ahead of the event, leading public opinion and not following it."

Asked if he could have made Mr Cameron's keynote foreign affairs speech, Sir Menzies replied: "It is a speech I have made." He said: "The public are well able to distinguish between real liberals and phoney liberals. It took him [Mr Cameron] three weeks to say Israeli action in Lebanon was disproportionate."

On the environment, Sir Menzies said the difference between him and Mr Cameron is that "he discusses it, we have concrete proposals ... This is our ground. We understand it. We are comfortable with it. My party doesn't have to be led by the nose on to it."

The Liberal Democrat leader dismissed as "daft" any speculation that he might be upstaged by his predecessor Charles Kennedy, who makes a delayed valedictory speech to the party's Brighton conference today, eight months after being forced to resign over his alcohol problem. Sir Menzies is relaxed: "I hope Charles Kennedy will perform to the best of his undoubted and acknowledged ability. By doing so, he will strengthen our party and its resolve.

"This is not a beauty contest. Parties are like families. You have got members who have different attributes, different qualities. Charles has a rare quality - his connection with the British public at a time when so much is said about disconnection. We would be very foolish indeed not to use that as much as we possibly can."

The Liberal Democrat leaders will not set a "time limit" or " target" for Mr Kennedy's return to frontline politics. "When he is ready, I shall be delighted to have him back on the front bench. That depends on a whole lot of factors, about which it is difficult to speculate at this stage," he said.

Sir Menzies hoped this week's conference would show the public his party is "back in business" after the turmoil earlier this year. His goal is to show people it is "not a party of spin, symbolism but substance".

But so far, the media coverage of his leadership has been more hostile than favourable. Much of it has focused on Sir Menzies' credibility and age. His answer to the latter point is to display the talents of his young, hungry frontbench team. "We have to make the team point now," he said."What will I offer that others don't? Maturity, experience, judgement, energy, values that chime more closely with the British people."

The former Olympic sprinter and QC will get personal in his conference speech on Thursday when he will talk about the "opportunity society" - and declare that he was lucky enough to get three opportunities in his life: in sport, the law and politics.

Has the ageism he has faced since becoming leader surprised him? "None of us are impervious to criticism," he said."Politics is a rough old game. If you haven't got a thick skin, you shouldn't be in the contest."

As he headed back to the conference hall, Sir Menzies concluded: "I have had a few challenges in my life. This is simply another challenge. I am enjoying it."

Conference diary

* ARCTIC MENZIES

What was meant to be a relaxed question-and-answer session to show the human side of Sir Menzies Campbell backfired. First his attempt to sound trendy fell flat when he bizarrely claimed the Arctic Monkeys had sold more records than the Beatles. Then Sir Menzies claimed the Liberal Democrats had won both the Dunfermline & West Fife and Bromley & Chislehurst by- elections, when in fact they lost Bromley to the Tories by 633 votes. (A spokesman said "it felt like we won".) A reference to watching The West Wing also caused trouble. Sir Menzies said it was on BBC4, when it is shown on More 4. Earlier Sir Menzies named Bet Lynch as his favourite Coronation Street character ­ he claims to be a fan ­ even though she left the soap opera years ago.

* BADGE OF HONOUR

In case they can't remember what any of the Lib Dem MPs look like, delegates can snap up a set of Lib Dem parliamentary fridge magnets. Yours for 65p (£40.95 the set). Top seller is not Ming, or Paddy Ashdown, but the new MP for Cornwall North, Dan Rogerson. Charles Kennedy staggers in at No 5.

* BEST SELLER

No surprises at the choice of bedtime reading for delegates: Greg Hurst's account of Charles Kennedy's downfall. Within hours of the conference opening 50 copies had flown off the shelves and booksellers were calling for more. There were even a few unsigned copies available.

* GOOD DAY

Nick Clegg, home affairs spokesman, who won a 30-second ovation in a traditionally difficult slot for the Lib Dems.

BAD DAY

Constituencies which select white men lose out on a cut of a £200,000 fund to help woman and ethnic minority candidates.

* REBEL OF THE DAY

Evan Harris, frontbench spokesman on science and ringleader of a potentially damaging revolt over tax.

* TODAY'S AGENDA

9.50am: Speech by Chris Huhne, environment spokesman

10.45am: Tax debate

2.15pm: Environment debate

3.40pm: Speech by Charles Kennedy

4pm: Debate on water policy

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