Campbell says he's staying as LibDems meet

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BRIGHTON, Sep 16 (Reuters) Menzies Campbell today brushed aside criticism of his leadership of the Liberal Democrats insisting he had no plans to stand down.

''I have made it perfectly clear, I will lead the party through this parliament, through the general election and into the next parliament,'' he told BBC television.

He said his party was the ''true opposition'', with Labour and Conservative aligned on issues such as Iraq and nuclear power.

''We are faced with one of the most authoritarian governments that we have seen in this country since the end of the Second World War,'' he said.

''The great divisions now in British politics are not between left and right, they are between liberal and authoritarian.'' As party members meet in Brighton for the start of their annual conference, Campbell faces criticism that he is too low-profile or too old, at 66, to take the party forward.

A YouGov poll published in the Sunday Times put his personal rating as low as 4 per cent, trailing Conservative leader David Cameron on 17 per cent and Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown on 39 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats are lagging a poor third in the polls with support back to the lows last seen after the resignation of previous leader Charles Kennedy in January 2006.

The party's public support has fallen to 15 percent from the 23 per cent it gained at the 2005 general election, according to YouGov.

While few expect an outright challenge to Campbell's position at the week-long conference, there will inevitably be mutterings of dissatisfaction at his performance so far.

A BBC poll of Liberal Democrat constituency associations found a quarter unhappy with Campbell's leadership.

Of the 90 associations that responded to the BBC Radio World This Weekend survey, 61 were satisfied Campbell was leading the party in the right direction, 15 were unsure and nine said they did not support him.

Campbell gets his first chance to boost his standing on Sunday evening when he addresses an opening rally devoted to human rights.

He has surprised many in the pro-European party by calling for a national referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

But while his ostensible target is David Cameron, who has called for a narrower vote on the revised EU treaty, others suggest Campbell is equally concerned to defuse a row over Europe within his own party.

''The Liberal Democrats promised a referendum on the EU constitution,'' said Conservative Foreign Affairs Spokesman William Hague.

''They should concentrate on making sure that this promise is kept, instead of producing ill-thought out distractions on the eve of a difficult party conference''.

REUTERS SYU PM1606

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