Test for leader Campbell as LibDem conference meets

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LONDON, Sep 16 (Reuters) Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell faces a test of his authority this week as party members and politicians meet in Brighton for their annual conference.

The opposition party is trailing 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 from the 23 per cent it gained at the 2005 general election to around 16 per cent.

''Ming'' Campbell's own satisfaction rating is also poor at minus nine percent in the latest Ipsos Mori poll - compared to plus 20 per cent for Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

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

Campbell has brushed aside concerns, insisting he will lead his party into the next election and beyond.

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

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, says Campbell has failed to project the party to a wider public.

Compounding the problem, the Liberal Democrats have lost the distinctive policy edge they once had on issues such as Iraq, student loans and taxation, Curtice added.

''Such distinctiveness that they had has been swapped for a policy which is rather closer to those of other parties.

''Given the problem of a lack of a distinctive policy space you need a leader who is going to make a big public impact and Ming has not managed to do that.'' Yesterday Campbell did return to the headlines, calling for a national referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

But while his ostensible target was Conservative leader David Cameron, who has called for a vote on the revised EU treaty, others suggested Campbell was equally concerned to defuse a row over Europe within his own, pro-European 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 SZ VP0440

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