BRIGHTON, Sep 20 (Reuters) Menzies Campbell took aim at his rival Labour and Conservative leaders today and rejected accusations he was too old for the job, in a defiant closing speech at the Liberal Democrat conference.
Delegates responded with a five-minute standing ovation for ''Ming'' Campbell, who has been under pressure throughout the annual meeting from constant media sniping about his age and performance.
He declared he would lead his party into the next election with ''energy, ambition and determination.'' He would make a virtue of his 66 years, ''because with age comes experience, with experience comes judgement.'' ''If military action is proposed against Iran, who should the British people trust to stand up to George Bush,'' he asked.
''Should they trust the Labour and Conservative MPs who voted for the war in Iraq? Or should they trust the Liberal Democrats who stood -- steadfast -- against the tragic folly of that decision?'' Party aides said the speech was Campbell's answer to media commentators who have spent much of the conference pondering who might succeed him, despite a week of policy decisions on the environment, taxation, local government and inequality.
Potential rivals among his shadow cabinet spent much of the week loyally denying there was any vacancy at the top of the party.
But that uneasy truce was broken yesterday when Home Affairs spokesman Nick Clegg admitted that if there were a vacancy in future he would probably put his name forward, prompting Environment Spokesman Chris Huhne to censure Clegg for declaring his hand ''prematurely''.
Campbell told delegates that the Liberal Democrats were the only party prepared to ''break the cosy consensus of British politics.'' He attacked Prime Minster Gordon Brown for 10 years of ''waste, failure and disappointment.'' ''This is your legacy, Mr Brown -- the environment degraded, civil liberties eroded, and Iraq invaded.'' He accused Conservative leader David Cameron of failing to make any policy commitments on the environment, unlike the Liberal Democrats, who this week adopted policy measures to make Britain carbon neutral by 2050.
''Last year the Conservative conference was about health, happiness and the sunshine glinting through the trees.
''This year it will be flag, fear -- and foreigners ... because he is under pressure.'' Campbell promised that his party would campaign for a bill of rights to include protection of the environment.
''We should guarantee the right of every citizen to clean water, pure air and unpolluted land,'' he said.
Campbell's aides said the provision would allow individuals to take companies or the government to court over environmental pollution not covered in existing legislation.
Gaynor Griffiths, a party delegate in her 50s from Cambridgeshire, said Campbell's speech was ''far better than expected and restored my faith.'' Rhiannon Wadeson, 24, a delegate from Gloucestershire said Campbell had been ''superb'', but Leslie Dubow, 74, from Enfield, said the speech was just ''OK''.
''The issues are all there ... I just feel we are in a phoney election war,'' he said.
REUTERS SKB PM1915