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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 September 2007, 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK
Ming's leadership bid
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

After a conference week dominated by chatter over his leadership, Sir Menzies Campbell needed to meet his critics head on while offering something distinctive for party members and voters to get their teeth into - even a bit of chutzpah.

Sir Menzies Campbell
Sir Menzies took the age issue head on

It was probably no great surprise, then, that 18 months after he won the job, parts of his address sounded as much like a leadership election pitch as they did an end-of-conference rallying call.

He referred to what his leadership offered the party and even ended with the sentence: "This is what I offer."

That choice of the first person sounded to many like a plea for his party to back him, like the pay off to a leadership election address.

And, as far as the reaction from this gathering is concerned, he will get that support - it is his MPs he has probably still got to watch.

As for policy and vision, there was plenty to chew over, including the controversial notion of a bill of environmental rights to give people the right to demand, in court, clean air, water and land.

Age issue

It ran the risk of just looking like another attempt to find something radical and distinctive to outbid the other parties who have been stealing his thunder on green issues.

But it certainly offered something distinctive.

Sir Menzies also took the age issue head on, as he has started to do of late, attempting to turn it on its head by suggesting the other leaders lacked experience and judgement.

Had wiser heads been in 10 Downing Street, Britain may not have been taken to war in Iraq, he suggested.

Nick Clegg
Mr Clegg said he would stand as leader
He has also clearly employed a better class of joke writers since last year's lacklustre performance and his quips about Boris Johnson as "the blondest suicide note in history", for example, were genuinely funny.

But there still wasn't the degree of chutzpah we have come to expect at these events. Sir Menzies can't quite pull that off. Perhaps, if he really can hammer home that experience and wisdom argument, he doesn't need to.

Something extra

So, at the end of a week in which the Liberal Democrats made some big policy decisions on the environment, immigration and taxation but which was overshadowed by leadership talk, Sir Menzies has, at least, stabilised his position.

As he said himself, at the end of the day he is answerable to his party not the media - although, it must be said, his troubles cannot all be placed at the feet of the press, his own MPs Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne must bear most of that responsibility.

The question that still hangs over him, however, is with how much enthusiasm is his party backing him?

He needs more than the support of a party simply nervous of engaging in another, divisive leadership contest or holding on to him just because a general election may be near.

If he is to avoid the worst of the expected two-party squeeze at that next general election, he needs to offer something extra in the way of policy, if not charisma.

It now remains to be seen whether leadership speculation will finally die away and attention will focus onto policy, as he and his party dearly hopes.

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