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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Sir Menzies' message of substance
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

He has had to suffer more than his fair share of ribbing over his age, image and lack of public profile.

Sir Menzies Campbell and wife Elspeth
Sir Menzies wants to offer substance

So Sir Menzies Campbell took to the Liberal Democrat stage determined to dispel the "myths" and show his party and, crucially, the public that, in him, they have an energetic, substantial and trustworthy party leader.

He probably succeeded in some areas more than others.

The pre-speech video and slides reminding everyone he was once an Olympic runner was fine - except, of course, it was in nostalgic black and white and reminded some of a famous advertisement for a directory enquiries number, and just how long ago his sprinting days were.

Then, to "exciting" modern theme music, he took a little jog up the last step onto the platform to show he was still more than steady on his feet. The word "sprightly" came to mind.

Spectacles glistening in the spotlights, he referred to "my generation" - but may have stretched things a little far by describing it as "youthful middle age".

Second tactic

His followers will debate whether he should have even attempted to address the age issue.

They'll recall that his half-hearted reference to the Arctic Monkeys at the start of the conference backfired when it became clear he had less than an encyclopaedic knowledge of the group.

What none will argue with was his second tactic, which was to portray himself as the leader with the greatest substance.

Charles Kennedy
No reference in speech to Charles Kennedy

"Substance not spin" and "policy not symbolism" - along with free, fair and green - were the soundbites.

And this is probably where Sir Menzies' strengths lie. His party overwhelmingly backed his green tax policy during the conference and, in doing so gave the Lib Dems one of the most radical, if controversial, economic policies of the big three parties.

The danger now is that the others will do their best to tear the plan to bits - and then steal any bits they think will appeal to voters.

But Sir Menzies pledged this was just the beginning of his policy review, one which would turn the Lib Dems from a party of opposition to a party of government.

Advertising agency

He hit all the right notes on the key liberal issues of the Iraq war, Lebanon and human rights and delivered stinging attacks on Labour and the Tories.

He peppered his speech with a few jokes, doing an inevitable one about hurricane Gordon - a great grey depression, spinning around sucking everything into the centre.

And he accused David Cameron of turning the Tories into a glorified advertising agency.

He also attempted to give his party and the public a clearer idea of who he is and where he came from which, still a bit surprising bearing in mind his bearing, was a modest tenement in Glasgow.

He notably failed to mention Charles Kennedy after reports his predecessor refused an offer to be pictured shaking his hand during his comeback performance two days ago.

But the overwhelming message from his performance was that whatever the Lib Dems may have been in the past, they are now serious contenders with serious and weighty policies and an experienced and statesmanlike leader with the energy, commitment - and even a bit of passion - to deliver.

He will be able to look back on a conference week which, despite some glitches over pop groups at the start, gave him the tax policy he wanted, moved the party on from the turmoil at the start of the year, and underpinned his leadership for the immediate future.


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