We are close to the tipping point to win power, says Huhne

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The Liberal Democrats are on the cusp of the political "tipping point" that will give them the credibility to win a giant leap in support and propel them into government, a senior frontbencher said last night.

Chris Huhne, the party's environment spokesman, told a packed fringe meeting organised by The Independent that the party had its strongest Westminster presence since the 1920s and was now close to a historic breakthrough.

He said: "I'm convinced our story, our policies, our people, make us ready to take that next crucial step into power. We are very close to that tipping point."

Mr Huhne said he would not have swapped a safe seat in the European Parliament for an ultra-marginal constituency unless he was "convinced that during my political lifetime we are going to achieve to goals on which we all agree".

He said the key was building the party's "credibility in the public mind" and by demonstrating that it had the "most compelling" story to tell of the major political parties. The result could be a transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party that has to fight "street to street like the battle for Stalingrad" to one that was going to able to "cut across swaths of the country".

Simon Hughes, theparty's president, declared that "power is within our reach", and claimed the party's poll ratings were reaching the point where the electoral system could produce sudden leaps forward.

Lord Rennard, the party's chief executive and elections guru, predicted that a collapse in the Labour vote at the next general election would propel the Liberal Democrats further towards their goal of gaining power.

"We will face a different Labour leader at the next election to the one we have faced in the last three," he declared. "But I believe it to be as strong a principle as Newton's law of gravity that a Labour government at the end of their third term will be less popular than at the end of their second term.

"Labour will lose seats next time. That in itself will bring us nearer to power. I believe that they will lose many of those seats to us."

He added: "In May last year we gained 11 seats from Labour - more than we have done at any election since Labour was formed. I sense that this was simply a sign of things to come."

Nick Clegg, the home affairs spokesman, said it was "nonsense" to say that the party could not be radical, but also credible. He said: "Putting forward a programme for government doesn't mean jettisoning our radical objectives."

Mr Clegg said the party still needed to build up its "credibility and authority", but should not allow itself to be defined in terms of left and right. He said: "We have been a little ambivalent about power in the past, worrying that it might undermine our principles."

But Mr Hughes sounded a note of caution at the meeting, How do the Liberal Democrats Move Closer to Power? He warned they were failing to win widespread support from huge sections of the electorate - including ethnic minorities, young mothers, pensioners and business people. Mr Hughes told the meeting, attended by about 400 delegates, that a radical drive was needed to get their message across to groups that could be crucial in achieving an electoral breakthrough.

He suggested they could be contacted in unconventional settings, such as supermarkets, railway stations, the school gate and outside football grounds, via the latest technology or through the specialist media. Mr Hughes said: "We've got to get more engaged on some of the issues which matter to the British public ... We mustn't be afraid to be both principled and populist."