CHARLES Kennedy branded his Liberal Democrat critics arrogant and immature yesterday in an extraordinary bid to shore up his faltering leadership.

The much-criticised leader brought to a close a Blackpool conference dogged by splits and talk of plots with a defiant defence of his laidback, consensual style.

In a highly-personal speech, Mr Kennedy - who has admitted he needs to "up his game" - insisted he would continue to listen and consult.

And he told delegates: "Others may have become so full of themselves that they also think they're full of better ideas about leadership.

"But what I have set out is a sensible, genuine and mature way of leading a political party - and, with your support, that's what I intend to continue to do."

Mr Kennedy underlined his "Here to stay" message by stating: "I will lead this party into the next election."

But the refusal to change style may not be enough to win over activists who - in defeating the leadership in key votes this week - have made their unhappiness clear.

Significantly, the loudest applause came when Mr Kennedy pledged that he had not come into politics to turn the Lib Dems into "another conservative party".

That reflected growing unease that the party has lurched to the right since the General Election, preparing a tax-cutting agenda to win over disaffected Tories.

Mr Kennedy won a fervent six-minute standing ovation for his speech, which the man touted as his most likely rival for the leadership, party president Simon Hughes, described as "the best he has ever made to conference".

And Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, seen as a leader of the group of modernising MPs who are trying to shake off the party's tax-and-spend image, said: "He was absolutely uncompromising in underwriting what we are trying to do."

Two key "modernising" policy ideas backed by Mr Kennedy - the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail and a cap on EU spending - were defeated on the conference floor this week.

Yesterday, Mr Kennedy pledged to continue with both policies, but sought to defuse tensions by insisting both were "not left, not right - but liberal".

Labelling Labour "conservative with a small c", he said: "People don't want, don't deserve and don't demand another conservative party in British politics - small c or capital c.

"That part of the pitch is overcrowded. And I can assure all of you, I did not enter public life with the ambition of leading yet another conservative party."

Mr Kennedy admitted to "splits, plots, rival camps, backbiting and leadership speculation" at Blackpool - but joked that would be when the Conservatives visit in a fortnight.

And he appealed for the rank-and-file to "give me the chance" first offered when he stood as a Westminster candidate at the tender age of 23.

In a biting critique of Labour's handling of Iraq and terror, Mr Kennedy made clear that he believes that the response to the July 7 bombings in London will be a dominant issue of the current Parliament.

The "war on terror" declared by Tony Blair and US President George Bush has been "so badly implemented that it has actually boosted the terror threat not diminished it", he said.

Accusing Mr Blair of being "in denial" over Iraq, he demanded a clear exit strategy to bring UK troops home.

And he put the Government on notice that the Lib Dems will not accept counter-terrorism measures - such as detention without charge for three months - which "undermine our most basic rights and eat into our most cherished freedoms".