Clegg comes home to face a fiery reception from his party


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Indy Politics

Nick Clegg faces the prospect of an internal party rebellion and a 10,000-strong protest outside as he arrives in his home city of Sheffield for the Liberal Democrats' spring conference.

The leadership is already resigned to being defeated on a key vote about the future of the NHS, after the party's president, Tim Farron, said the rebellion was being supported by people from the "top to the bottom" of the party.

Arriving early to visit his Sheffield constituency yesterday afternoon, Mr Clegg was given a taste of the protests that are expected to afflict his weekend on his home territory. A man in his 30s walked up to him at Sheffield's train station and said: "How do you feel? You have let everyone down."

Mr Clegg, who was accompanied by protection officers, replied: "I don't think I have, actually."

Police are expecting around 10,000 protesters to take to the streets tomorrow as part of the Sheffield Anti-Cuts Alliance. Police leave has been cancelled and officers drafted in from other forces. Steel fencing already surrounds the town hall – and the city's student unions are discouraging their members from attending for fear of violence. "It's like Fort Knox in there," said Patrick Hill, one of the many people in Sheffield who have taken against Mr Clegg. "You would think they're trying to hide."

The problem for the Liberal Democrat leader – albeit totally unforeseen when the conference venue was booked a year ago – is that Sheffield has become emblematic of government cutbacks.

Mr Clegg's Hallam constituency, the most affluent in the North of England, also has the highest proportion of public-sector workers living in it.

Sheffield, therefore, is not just Mr Clegg's backyard, but also his political front line.

And as deputy leader of a Government embarking on an unprecedented public-spending squeeze, he is not popular in a city where the state accounts for well over half of the gross domestic product. The Home Office, the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions have a significant presence here and less than 30 per cent of the new jobs created in the past 10 years have been in the private sector.

"Sheffield is totally reliant on higher education, schools, the local council and the NHS for jobs," said one government worker who lives in Sheffield and asked not to be named.

"The only other thing we've got are shops and the service sector – but they are not going to survive long if there is no one to buy their stuff. The whole model for Sheffield as a city is broken. There is no basic skilled or semi-skilled work around any more and I fear we will get to the stage where you'll have three generations of the same family all out of work. The idea of Sheffield as a manufacturing powerhouse is long gone."

Caroline Dowd is president of Sheffield Hallam Students Union. In a sign of what has happened to Sheffield, her offices are in the defunct National Centre for Popular Music – it was built at a cost of £15m, but never succeeded commercially and has now been taken over by the public sector.

She will be helping the police during tomorrow's demonstration and said she expects a large student turnout.

Ms Dowd said: "I would say there is a lot of unease within the city. It is very heavily reliant on both universities and already you are seeing signs of decline.

"Walk through the centre and there are now many more boarded-up shops. Come the summer, when the students go home, I fear it is going to get much worse."

Politically, all this spells almost certain armageddon for the Liberal Democrat-controlled local authority in local council elections this May. The Liberal Democrats are defending 15 seats, five of which are in Mr Clegg's constituency, and not even the most optimistic councillors believe they can hang on.

But what about Mr Clegg's own electoral prospects? He has two things that stand against him – and two things in his favour.

In a city where community counts for a lot, he has always been something of an outsider and has a relationship with Hallam rather like that of Tony Blair with Sedgefield. Mr Clegg was only elected in 2005 after being parachuted in from his previous role as a Liberal Democrat MEP. He is unlikely to get a huge personal vote. There is also a very high proportion of students living in Hallam who if still sufficiently exercised could undermine his 15,000 majority.

But in his favour, he has time – 2015 is still far away and he will be hoping the economy will have improved enough by then – even in Sheffield – so that things will look a little brighter.

But his most important asset is that unlike Sheffield's four other constituencies, which are solidly Labour, the Tories are in second place in Hallam with Labour a distant third. In Hallam, like in Westminster, the Coalition partners will go down, or up, together.