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Campbell attempts to fight back against Lib Dem critics

By Nigel Morris and Ben Russell

Sir Menzies Campbell will once again attempt to assert his authority over his party today, as it agonises over his leadership and its position in British politics.

The Liberal Democrat leader will lay into the "cosy consensus" that has built up between Labour and the Conservatives and try to end the speculation over his leadership which has overshadowed the event for the second year running.

Sir Menzies' wife, Elspeth, made a barbed aside yesterday that summed up her husband's predicament. She spoke out as they bumped into Nick Clegg, the party's home affairs spokesman, who reignited speculation over the leadership by confirming that he expected to stand after Sir Menzies steps down. As their paths crossed, she snapped: "I don't know if you're being helpful or not." Mr Clegg looked embarrassed as he replied: "I'm trying to be." Sir Menzies told her: "He's being very helpful." But Lady Campbell said: "It's so difficult."

The exchange came after Mr Clegg traded verbal blows with his likely leadership rival, Chris Huhne, as the simmering war for the party crown erupted into the open.

Sir Menzies will use his closing speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton today to lay out his "personal credo" and hit back at critics who have protested that he is too close to the new Prime Minister. He will mount his most strongly worded attack on Mr Brown, whom he has described as a personal friend, and the two biggest political parties. "Today our party is not only the real alternative," he will say, "it is the only alternative; not two against one, but one against two."

He has published a dossier of policies on which the party has a distinctive position including ID Cards, nuclear power, university tuition fees and the Iraq war. But attempts yesterday to turn the spotlight on to the dividing lines in British politics were eclipsed by renewed jockeying for position among pretenders to the Liberal Democrat crown.

Aides to Sir Menzies were livid when Mr Clegg reignited the speculation over his future intentions. Mr Clegg told a fringe meeting: "If you are asking me would I stand against Ming, the answer is no." Pushed further, he said: "If there was a vacancy in the future, then I probably would."

Mr Huhne accused his rival of jumping the gun by even discussing the subject. He said: "There is no vacancy and it would be premature to even talk about the possibility of there being a vacancy. I am not the sort of Michael Heseltine figure who plans their route map to Downing Street right from the day they come out of nappies."

Mr Huhne, who was runner-up for the leadership behind Sir Menzies in 2006, added: "I believe each of us has to be very careful about what additional spin could be put on what we say."

But Mr Clegg hit back within an hour of the rebuke. He told the BBC's Daily Politics show: "If someone says if there's a vacancy some time in the future might you be in the frame, I'm not going to be playing this disingenuous game of ruling anything in or out. I said I might be."

In the running

Nick Clegg, 40

Home affairs spokesman

Selling point: Photogenic, articulate, and strong on civil liberties Weakness: Modernising views may alienate some activists

Odds: 11/8 (favourite)

Chris Huhne, 53

Environment spokesman

Selling point: Pushes green buttons

Weakness: Could lose seat. Lacks common touch

Odds: 3/1

Steve Webb, 42

Drafting manifesto

Selling point: Landed blows on Brown over pensions. Left-wing style popular with old liberals

Weakness: Could alienate lapsed Tories

Odds: 33/1

Ed Davey, 41

Chief of staff to SirMenzies Campbell

Selling point: Young, confident party operator

Weakness: Identified with Sir Menzies

Odds: 8/1

Julia Goldsworthy, 29

Economics spokeswoman

Selling point: Young, photogenic reality TV starWeaknesses: Little known; could lose seat

Odds: 12/1

Conference diary

High volume

It's far from light reading, but there's no doubt about the conference's best-seller. The Westminster Bookshop has already shifted 70 copies of Reinventing the State, a £14.99 collection of essays on social justice by the likes of Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Steve Webb, and is having more copies sent to Brighton.

Reverse gear

Susan Kramer, the transport spokeswoman, blundered over plans to impose a £10 surcharge on UK domestic flights when she suggested the levy would apply to destinations in northern Scotland, including the Liberal Democrat stronghold of Inverness. In the face of anger from Highlands colleagues, aides were dispatched to confirm that she had got it wrong.

Cheeky lot

The Campaign for Gender Balance is dedicated to promoting the feminist cause within Lib Dem ranks. So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the star item in its fund-raising evening was a signed Cheeky Girls CD auctioned off by Lembit Opik, who is stepping out with one of the pop duo. Bidding reached £100.

Going cheap

There are piles of transport and energy policy consultation documents in a bin at the party's conference shop. There are still no takers, despite the bargain price of 20p each.

Good day

Brian Paddick, the former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner, confirmed his front-runner status to be the party's candidate for Mayor of London with an assured performance at a hustings session. The candidate will be chosen in November.

Bad day

Nick Clegg, who got the leadership issue up and running again by being slightly too honest about his ambitions. Then he incurred the wrath of Sir Menzies' formidable wife, Elspeth.

Fringe of the day

The traditional end-of-conference Glee Club bash continued into the small hours of this morning with the party faithful swapping limp jokes and singing nostalgic tunes about Lloyd George.

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