Nick Clegg cleared the ground yesterday for a Liberal Democrat election campaign based on hard-nosed realism by jettisoning some of the party's key spending pledges.
He distanced himself from the approach of his predecessors Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown by rejecting the "shopping list" approach he said was still favoured by Labour and the Tories. One senior Liberal Democrat source admitted the party needed "credibility as well as likeability".
As The Independent revealed last July, Mr Clegg dumped some long-standing policy commitments from his party's election manifesto because of the £178bn deficit in the public finances. They include a £2bn pledge to provide free personal care for the over-65s, a new "citizen's pension" rising immediately in line with earnings rather than prices and an expansion of free childcare. University tuition fees would be phased out over six years. The party's flagship policy was to scrap fees in one go and Mr Clegg initially wanted to abandon this stance. But he had to reach a compromise with party members who demanded it be retained to boost the party's appeal in university towns and cities.
Final-year tuition fees would be the first to go under the Liberal Democrat plan. In 2013, free tuition would be extended to second-year students and in 2015 they would abolish all remaining fees. With Labour and the Tories likely to raise the £3,225-a-year cap on fees, the Liberal Democrats will argue they are the only party which wants to abolish them.
Party insiders denied that Mr Clegg's tough message that money does not "grow on trees" was aimed at his own party. They were confident that Liberal Democrat activists would rally behind the slimline programme.
Mr Clegg said in a keynote speech in London: "Shopping lists of pledges don't wash any more. The politics of plenty are over." He admitted: "A number of multibillion-pound policies that we have advocated in the past we can no longer afford." There would "no longer be firm commitments in our manifesto" and they "would be put on hold until they become affordable again".
He said: "I'm putting our cards on the table. David Cameron and Gordon Brown are playing the politics of the airbrush and the focus group. One doesn't know what he believes, the other doesn't know what to do with the power he clings to so desperately."
Mr Clegg said his party would offer the British people the chance to vote for the four steps essential for a fairer Britain: fair taxes, a new, fair start for all children at school, a rebalanced, green economy and clean, open politics.
Andrew Harrop, head of public policy for Age Concern and Help the Aged, warned that many older people and their families would feel let down. "There's no doubt that the looming election will be overshadowed by the urgent need to cut the budget deficit, but politicians must not lose sight of the care crisis before us," he said.
Stephen Timms, the Treasury minister, said the Liberal Democrats realised their plans did not "add up" and were making "U-turn after U-turn".
Break from the past: Policy commitments
*IN Raise personal tax allowance to £10,000, reducing bills for most earners by £705 a year
* £2.5bn to help 1 million pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds
* "Green jobs and economy" package – budget to be announced
*OUT A new minimum or "citizen's" pension
*Free personal care for the elderly
*Extension of free childcare to 18-month-olds
*IN DOUBT? Abolition of university tuition fees delayed – would now be phased out over six years
* £2bn to be spent on keeping open rural post offices