Nick Clegg has warned that the Liberal Democrats’ opponents are trying to "airbrush out" the party's role in the UK's economic recovery.
In a policy-lite closing speech to the Lib Dem spring conference in York on Sunday, the Deputy Prime Minister signalled the start of the long campaign to next year's general election by emphasising the party's achievements in government. Mr Clegg said the history books will show that "the country was put back on track by a party which had never been in government before".
Senior party figures spent the weekend conference playing up the Lib Dems’ influence as the minority party in coalition, reflecting fears that they lose votes for unpopular policies while the Conservatives get the credit for the economic recovery. An anti-austerity protest took place outside the conference venue over the weekend, while some angry voters have not forgiven the party for ditching a 2010 manifesto pledge to scrap university tuition fees.
Despite the pounding that the Lib Dems have taken in the opinion polls, Mr Clegg is hopeful that the 2015 election could still result in the need for shared Government, whether it is again with David Cameron or with Labour. He said that while the current parliament has been about being in "emergency mode" to salvage the country from the financial crisis, the 2015-20 period will be focused on "reconstruction".
Sketching out his vision for a “Great Britain, not little England,” Mr Clegg said the Lib Dems needed to protect UK from one-party rule because they are “the guardians of a modern, open and tolerant Britain.” He said: “Between now and the election, our aim is to build a coalition bringing together all of the liberal-minded, liberal-hearted men and women who love the Britain we love – and who want a party prepared to fight for it. That’s the only coalition I care about.”
The main theme of the conference was the party's commitment to staying in the European Union. In effect, the Lib Dems want to turn the May elections into a referendum on Europe, a high risk strategy given some polls suggest the party could lose all of its 12 MEPs.
In a thinly-veiled assault on Ukip, Mr Clegg warned that nationalistic extremism is making headway across Europe, from Hungary to France. "These are not far flung places," he argued. "This is our backyard. The forces of chauvinism, protectionism and xenophobia have been emboldened. And there is no doubt about it: the fight is now on for the future of our continent."
There was also a long passage on the things he loves about Britain so as to bat away Eurosceptic accusations that sticking with the EU is akin to selling out the UK. Among Mr Clegg's “loves” were the football Premier League, shipping forecasts, pomp and ceremony, cups of tea – and wearing a t-shirt and flip flops.
Clegg's Britain: Patriot Games
Nick Clegg has his work cut out convincing us that he is an ordinary British bloke. He’s got the Everyman accent, to be sure, but his blood is a heady cocktail of Russian, German, Polish, Ukrainian and Dutch, with a late tincture of English. He speaks several languages, and he is married to a Spaniard. On top of all that he’s not only relaxed about immigration, but positively enthusiastic about the European Union.
So it is understandable that he should wish to remind the nation that he is not only British to the core, but proud to be so. Hence the long encomium for all things Brit in his speech yesterday.
Britain, he said, is as modest as it is proud, as inventive as it is conservative, as irreverent as it is obsequious. We love to queue even when there is no call to do so, and we believe a cup of tea is the solution to every problem.
Of course most of these distinctions could be cited to underline the argument that we are in fact the strangest nation on earth: listening to the shipping forecast 100 miles inland, sunbathing in the freezing cold…
The speech gave one the feeling of eavesdropping at breakfast with Miriam. Nick certainly makes a good stab at keeping his end up – but where will they go for their holidays? By Peter Popham