Clegg's deputy admits there's 'chatter' about boss's future

  • @NigelpMorris

Nick Clegg will today mount a fierce defence of the Liberal Democrats' record in the Coalition Government amid dismay within the party over its dismal opinion poll ratings.

On the eve of tomorrow's fifth anniversary of Mr Clegg becoming Liberal Democrat leader, his deputy, Simon Hughes, admitted there was "a little bit of chatter" about his future.

Senior party figures are also gloomy over the relentless rise in support for the UK Independence Party, leaving the Liberal Democrats fourth in many recent polls. But in a speech spelling out his party's achievements in office, Mr Clegg will attempt to regain the political initiative – and accelerate the process of "differentiating" it from the Conservatives.

He will claim the party curbed the instincts of Tory right-wingers by resisting "draconian welfare cuts" and argue that fairness has always been at the heart of tough decisions taken by the Coalition.

In a speech in London, he will say the Conservatives originally wanted to drive through £10bn of benefits cuts in this month's Autumn Statement through such measures as only paying child benefit to the first two youngsters in a family and removing housing benefit from the under-25s. But the Liberal Democrats intervened to reduce the cuts to £3.8bn, he will say.

"We rejected the more extreme reforms that had been put on the table. This is the job of the Liberal Democrats: to anchor reform in the sensible centre ground." He will say: "Both the Conservatives and Labour try to occupy the centre ground. Both get pushed off it by their tribal politics, but the Liberal Democrats are not for shifting."

Mr Clegg will declare the Liberal Democrats have "learnt to live with a host of invidious choices" as coalition partners and attack the "Tory right's dreams of a fantasy world", including the belief "we can walk away from the EU, but magically keep our economy strong". He will also hint at welfare policies his party could adopt in their next manifesto, including removing universal benefits from the wealthiest pensioners.

His speech comes at a crucial time for the party which is desperate to see the stirrings of a recovery with voters. However, three weekend polls all showed the Liberal Democrats languishing in fourth place behind Ukip. A ComRes survey for The Independent on Sunday put Labour on 39 per cent (down four points since last month), the Conservatives on 28 (down three), Ukip on 14 (up six) and the Liberal Democrats on nine (down one). The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, said it was now "crystal clear" that it was the "third party of choice in the public mind".

Mr Hughes told LBC radio Ukip was polling strongly because of the "protest vote" and the "chaos and confusion" in the eurozone. Asked about Mr Clegg's leadership, he replied: "There's a little bit of chatter [about it], but there's bound to be given the situation we find ourselves in the opinion polls.

"Nick led us into government for the first time since the Second World War and whoever had been leader of the Liberal Democrats would have been criticised for the decision we made."