Lib Dems had 'no alternative' to joining Coalition, says Nick Clegg

Squeeze on benefits will affect middle class as well as the poor, leader tells conference

Nick Clegg will tell the Liberal Democrats today that there was no alternative to entering the Coalition with the Conservatives as he rebuffs internal critics who claim he is shifting his party to the right.

In his speech to his party's Liverpool conference, Mr Clegg will declare that the Liberal Democrats would never have been taken seriously by voters if they had spurned a historic opportunity to share power.

The Liberal Democrat leader tried to reassure his party's doubters yesterday by promising that a shake-up of welfare in next month's government spending review would squeeze so-called "middle class" benefits as well as those paid to the poor. His remarks suggest that child benefit, child tax credits and winter fuel payments for pensioners could be curbed.

Mr Clegg told BBC Radio 5 Live he would happily give up his family's £2,450-a-year child benefit payments for his three sons. "It would be unfair to only deal with those benefits which only go to people on very low means. You have to also – because that's the fair thing to do – look at benefits that go high up the income scale to people who maybe are not so much in need and that's exactly what we're doing," he said.

Echoing Margaret Thatcher's blunt "there is no alternative" message to her Tory critics, the Deputy Prime Minister will tell the conference today: "People have got used to us being outsiders, against every government that's come along. Maybe we got used to it ourselves. But the door to the change we want was opened, for the first time in most of our lifetimes. Imagine if we had turned away. How could we ever again have asked the voters to take us seriously?"

He will add: "Some say we shouldn't have gone into government at a time when spending had to be cut. We should have let the Conservatives take the blame. Waited on the sidelines, ready to reap the political rewards. Maybe that's what people expected from a party that has been in opposition for 65 years.

"Labour left the country's coffers empty. So the years ahead will not be easy. But you do not get to choose the moment when the opportunity to shape your country comes your way. All you get to choose is what you do when it does."

Mr Clegg will insist that the public deficit must be tackled rapidly. He will praise his own party for showing conviction and courage at a difficult time and urge it to keep its eyes on the likely long-term prize after the cuts have been made.

Promising that the Liberal Democrats will fight every seat at the next election rather than enter a pact, he will say: "The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are and always will be separate parties, with distinct histories and different futures. But for this parliament, we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. This is the right government for right now."

During the conference yesterday, Mr Clegg faced a series of challenges from Liberal Democrat activists. In a question and answer session with delegates, he was tackled over the impact of spending cuts on the poor and the elderly, plans for a cap on immigration numbers and the slump in the party's poll rating.

Jill Hope received applause as she asked him: "Why are the Liberal Democrats being blamed for the cuts, while the Conservatives are being praised for policies we brought to the Coalition?" She urged Liberal Democrat ministers to make clear when they disapproved of policies championed by their Tory partners.

Mr Clegg replied that trying to "grab the opportunity to create some synthetic differences" might win helpful short-term headlines but would do long-term damage to the Coalition.

Another delegate, Linda Jack, protested: "We have a commitment to the poor, we say no one should be enslaved by poverty. Yet so many of these cuts are going to disproportionately affect the poorest."

Mr Clegg appeared to win over some critics and was warmly applauded at the end of the 45-minute session. He defended his earlier remarks that the Liberal Democrats had "no future" as a left-wing alternative to Labour, which some party activists saw as evidence of a tilt to the right. Yesterday he insisted that his party was much "better and bigger" than a receptacle for people disaffected with Labour.

Bob Russell, the MP for Colchester, said: "Nick says there is no future for us as a part of the left. Well, there is no future for us as a party of the right."

Sandra Gidley, a former MP, said: "We seem to be drifting as a party towards the right and there are quite a lot of people feeling disenfranchised because the party we see now isn't the party we joined. The public see us as a party that is putting power before the people."

David Rendel, another former MP, said the leadership "seem terrified of stories that they might get about splits in the Coalition ... so terrified that they pretend that every coalition policy is agreed on both sides. The result is that people who are normally not our supporters get a misleading idea about what our policies and ideas are."

In a crowd-pleasing announcement, Mr Clegg disclosed that the value of British aid being sent to Pakistan was to more than double. Another £70m was being set aside to rebuild houses, schools and farms in addition to the £64m already committed by the Government.

Conference Diary

*The thrill of power may have made this year's Liberal Democrat extravaganza the best attended ever, but at least one MP was conspicuous by his absence. Mike Hancock, the left-wing Portsmouth South MP who has been critical of the Coalition with the Tories, was nowhere to be found.

*Meanwhile, Charlie Kennedy's great vanishing act continues. First he missed the conference opening rally, blaming "transport problems" for his absence. At 12.30pm yesterday Radio 4 listeners were promised he would be appearing on The World This Weekend half an hour later. Sad to report it was no-show No 2 by the former leader.

*Clegg's team has come under friendly fire from Lembit Opik, the former MP now hoping to be London mayor. He said the Liberal Democrat leadership briefed against him during his failed bid to be the party's president. "I do not expect that kind of negative briefing against me again," he fumed.

*For the first time in years, the Liberal Democrats are not holding early morning press briefings. Have they decided they could do without the blunders? Last year Danny Alexander was thrown the hospital pass of trying to explain the party's plan to tax mansion owners. He was, to put it politely, underprepared.

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