Nick Clegg told the Liberal Democrats they could make an historic breakthrough at the election – but only if they had the bravery to face up to dire economic problems facing Britain. After a fractious conference marred by dissent over his leadership style, he warned his party yesterday that it would have to take painful decisions in order to be taken seriously by the voters.
Mr Clegg said he was unrepentant about having spelled out tough messages over the scale of cuts required to public spending to reduce Britain's mountain of debt.
But he also used his keynote speech to the Bournemouth gathering to try to rally morale among his restive MPs and delegates by raising the prospect of power after the election. Conspicuously avoiding any reference to coalitions or hung parliaments, the Lib Dem leader insisted he had set his sights on forming the next government.
"Let me tell you why I want to be prime minister," he told activists. "It's because I want to change our country for good." He added: "I want to be prime minister because I have spent half a lifetime imagining a better society. And I want to spend the next half making it happen."
In the party's final conference before the next election, Mr Clegg attempted to convey the seriousness of his ambitions. His refusal to rule out abandoning the party's cherished commitment to scrap university tuition fees has been attacked across the party during a turbulent week in Bournemouth, with former leader Charles Kennedy joining the criticism.
The Lib Dem leader has also come under fire for warning that Britain needed "savage" spending cuts. And Vince Cable, the treasury spokesman, provoked anger among colleagues for not consulting them over his proposals to impose a "mansion tax" on the owners of £1m-plus houses.
But Mr Clegg warned the party would have to make difficult choices on tax and spending if it was to set out a realistic national recovery programme that he characterised as "progressive austerity".
He said: "Many of these decisions will be difficult. Taking them is the price of fairness. But if we are brave enough to take them, it will be the beginning of real change in Britain."
He did not address the issue of tuition fees directly, but said: "I am never going to duck asking the important questions, however difficult they are."
Urging activists to pull together following their conferences differences, he said: "Let's always remember – we are in this together. So let us not look back any longer, let us look forward.
"From this point on, keep your eyes on our goal. Let today mark the beginning of real change in Britain."
Mr Clegg's speech, which he delivered on his ninth wedding anniversary, won a warm, but not ecstatic, four-minute ovation from delegates.
With his wife Miriam, he toured the hall shaking hands and posing for pictures with some Gurkhas, whose campaign for resettlement rights he successfully championed earlier this year.
Mr Clegg now faces a tough battle to hold on to the party's 63 constituencies in the election, likely to take place in the spring.
His claim that his party, which faces a concerted challenge from a buoyant Conservative Party in half of those seats, was on course for power risked echoes of David Steel's notorious challenge to Liberals to "return to your constituencies and prepare for government".
Last night Labour ridiculed him as a fantasist. But the Lib Dem leader's aides claimed private polling showed millions of voters still had not made up their minds who to support at the next election, making the outcome impossible to predict.
Mr Clegg argued that the Lib Dems now carried the "torch of progress" because a "lost" Labour Party had run out of energy and ideas and stood no chance of election victory.
He derided David Cameron's "hollow" Tories for only offering the illusion of change, claiming they lacked conviction.
In a direct appeal to floating voters, he said: "Make no mistake – the Liberal Democrats will do things differently in Britain.
"But if you want real change in Britain, you have to take a stand. If you want what we propose, you have to vote for it."Reuse content