Ming makes his mark

Liberal Democrat members showed their support for Menzies Campbell today by giving him a six-minute standing ovation at the end of his party conference speech.

Delegates enthused over his performance in Brighton, his first as Lib Dem leader, with one noting: “Over the past few months he appeared to take a while getting going, but I was absolutely reassured today.”

Parliamentary colleagues were similarly enthusiastic, with Lembit Opik MP telling politics.co.uk: “Ming Campbell had to deliver a really good speech to make this conference a personal success for him, and I think he did it.”

Sir Menzies’ speech was wide-ranging, attacking Labour’s record on inequality, civil liberties and foreign policy, and condemning David Cameron’s Conservatives for being superficial.

By contrast, he said, the Lib Dems this week had voted for new tax proposals that represented the “politics of substance” and covered the key concerns of the party – fairness, the environment and liberalism.

And he looked ahead to next May’s local council elections and those in the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, and stated his commitment to winning.

“The British people will vote for us in greater numbers still, but only if we show that we practice the politics of substance, just as we did in that great tax debate on Tuesday, and only if we show that we are the party of opportunity,” he said.

“That freedom, fairness and a commitment to the environment are at the very heart of everything we say and everything we do.”

Before Sir Menzies came to the stage, delegates were shown photographs set to music detailing his early life as a sportsman, as a barrister, and then as a hard-working politician.

He drew on these themes throughout his speech, explaining how his experience of growing up in a tenement in Glasgow had instilled in him a sense that “opportunity should not be an accident of birth, it must be open to everyone in Britain”.

But he warned that the gap between rich and poor was now wider than under Margaret Thatcher, millions of pensioners were still in poverty and there were higher taxes but little improvement in public services.

When Labour took power “there was a feeling of hope and a promise of change.the opportunity to renew Britain”, Sir Menzies said. “But Labour has squandered that opportunity – after three election victories, Labour has failed,” he said.

The fight against terrorism had also put Britons’ civil liberties – and their security – at risk, he warned, saying: “Terrorism thrives where civil liberties are denied.”

Abroad, Sir Menzies said Tony Blair had “presided over a foreign policy which is neither ethical nor effective” – but the Conservatives had failed to oppose any of this.

He called on Mr Cameron to apologise for backing the war in Iraq, “and while you’re at it, you should apologise for the last Tory manifesto, which you wrote and was one of the most reactionary, unpleasant, right-wing manifestos of modern times”.

The Conservatives also had nothing to offer voters on domestic policy, Sir Menzies insisted, arguing that he, unlike the Tories or Labour, knew “the true value of public services”.

He finished: “We share a great ambition for our party and our country – we are ambitious to put our principles into practice. To turn our ideas into action.

“My objective is nothing less than to complete the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party of opposition into a party of government.”