Critics praise Clegg 'speech of substance'

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's crucial conference speech appeared to have won over some of his prominent critics within the party.

Throughout the conference there has been speculation about the status of totemic policies such as abolishing tuition fees and the party's leadership has been criticised over the way the "mansion tax" proposal was not widely consulted on.

But senior MP Evan Harris, who led calls for Mr Clegg to listen to members, said the leader had learned that he must respect the party's will.

He said: "The grassroots have, as usual, debated policies with the leadership because it is the way we do things in this party."

Mr Clegg had "gained enormously from realising the need to test policy in the party as well as the wider public".

Earlier this week Dr Harris, the party's science spokesman, said Mr Clegg was a "good leader" but could only become great by realising the need to respect the will of the party.

Dr Harris said Mr Clegg delivered his speech "in fine style but the substance was there as well.

"We are a party that is very keen on the substance of policy and we are a party that debates it openly."

Work and pensions spokesman Steve Webb had used a conference appearance to criticise the gloomy tone of Mr Clegg's statements.

But he too praised the leader's performance during the conference finale in Bournemouth.

"He talked about austerity and cuts, but said why they were necessary and focused on the positive."

Asked whether he thought Mr Clegg had heeded his call, Mr Webb said: "He probably worked it out for himself but it was good to hear. It was uplifting."

Former leader Lord Ashdown said Mr Clegg had sent activists away with a "song in our heart and a spring in our step".

Lord Ashdown said: "If you want a monument, look around you. If you want a comment, look around you. Look at the faces, look at the enthusiasm. We have a really professional, powerful platform speaker and there is going to be a lot more.

"I have watched him growing in confidence personally and he is a tough leader and he gives leadership to the party. Sometimes that's not very comfortable for some but there is no doubt that it is there.

"He had a task to do, to send us away with a song in our heart and a spring in our step and he has done that in spades."

Home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "I thought it was a very good speech, he set the right tone for us to go out and campaign against the Tories. If people want real change it is only the Liberal Democrats that can offer it."

Foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey said Mr Clegg had highlighted the "phoney" policies of the Tories in the eyes of voters. "The vision he gave of real change for Britain was one that is resonating around," he said.

"The fact the Tories don't offer anything new, how Nick portrayed it as phoney change, I think will strike people who are looking for a different sort of Government, they will be really inspired by that speech."