Nick Clegg presented the Liberal Democrats as the party that will stand up to the “politics of fear” offered by Ukip, as he pleaded with the millions of voters who have deserted his party to give it a second chance.
In his closing speech to the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, the Deputy Prime Minister accused Labour and the Conservatives of pandering to Nigel Farage’s party, as he appealed to left-leaning voters who detest Ukip and “soft Conservatives” worried that the Tories are becoming the “nasty party” again.
Mr Clegg claimed both the Scottish National Party and Ukip were examples of “the bitter tribalism” of a “growing pick-a-side politics in a world of us-versus-them.” But he warned: “Resentment, the politics of fear, doesn’t pay the bills or create a single job. Dressed up as the politics of hope, it is in fact a counsel of despair.”
He argued that the Lib Dems were now the only party of “the head and the heart, of compassion and resolve”, and the only one “refusing to trade in fear”. He added: “We are the only party holding firm to decent, liberal values while anger and blame are on the rise.”
Mr Clegg told his party: “Our mission now is to give people a reason to reject bitter, us-and-them politics, to shun the politics of blame and fear, and choose something better. To do that, we have to provide the one thing that so many people across Britain still lack and crave - opportunity."
His strategy is a high-risk one because he tried “taking on” Ukip in the May European elections – holding two broadcast debates against Mr Farage - and failed. The Lib Dems lost 11 of their 12 MEPs and Ukip topped the poll. Mr Clegg calculates that the general election will be different because it will not be dominated by Europe, as the Euro elections were. Lib Dem polling suggests that the party’s “market” – people who might vote for them next May - is still about 25 per cent of the electorate, even though they average only nine per cent in the opinion polls.
“These people hate the populism of Ukip,” one Clegg ally explained. “They are a very important group for us.”
The Lib Dem leader was pitching to three audiences: the party faithful in the hall, which liked his defiant message, the media, and the public.Insisting his party had learnt lessons from its catastrophic U-turn over university tuition fees, he urged voters to judge it not “by the one policy we couldn’t deliver in Government, but by the countless policies we did deliver in Government”.
However, the fact that he decided to address the fees issue head-on again was a recognition that it has come to symbolise the lack of trust in him, his party and politics generally. It still plays on the doorsteps and will do next May.
Mr Clegg has not enjoyed much luck since 2010 but had a stroke of it by having the last word in this autumn’s party conference season. Normally the Lib Dems are first up, but this year their gathering was delayed until last because it clashed with the Scottish referendum.
The Lib Dems’ slogan was always going to be that only they offer a “stronger economy and fairer society”. But Mr Clegg believes that Labour and the Tories doubly underlined it for him at their own conferences – Ed Miliband by forgetting to mention the deficit and George Osborne by announcing a two-year freeze for most working-age benefits.
Mr Clegg peppered his speech with strong attacks on his Coalition partners. He deplored the “frenzied bile” of the Tory right against his plans to provide free school meals to all five-to-seven year-olds, and accused Theresa May of “playing politics” with anti-terror laws.
In an unusual move, Mr Clegg lifted the lid on private Coalition discussions ahead of the 2012 Budget, when he pressed George Osborne to raise the personal tax allowance – the flagship Lib Dem policy now adopted by the Tories. He disclosed that the Chancellor said: “I don’t want to deliver a Lib Dem Budget.”
Mr Clegg joked: “Apparently it’s our tax cut in private, but their tax cut in public.” He recalled that Mr Osborne cut the 50p top tax rate in 2012, telling Lib dem delegates: “I can’t think of a better, simpler illustration of what sets the two coalition parties apart.”
Looking ahead to next May’s election, he said: “The choice is clear: unfunded Tory tax cuts or Lib Dem tax cuts which are funded and fair. The difference is that they want to cut taxes for the wealthiest, paid for by the working-age poor. We want to cut taxes for working people, paid for by the wealthiest.”
Mr Clegg said: “Fairness without a strong economy does not work. A strong economy without fairness doesn’t work either. The Lib Dems will borrow less than Labour, but we’ll cut less than the Tories. We’ll finish the job [on the deficit] but we’ll finish it in a way that is fair.”
Like their leader, the Lib Dems showed in Glasgow this week they are a resilient bunch. But in the bars and restaurants, there was sometimes a gallows humour when delegates speculated how many of their 57 seats they would hold next May. “We’re going back to our constituencies to prepare for a bloodbath,” one candidate quipped.
The Lib Dems know the public are not suddenly going to love Mr Clegg, but hope he may yet win a grudging respect for being the last man standing on the centre ground.
What he said... and what he meant
Why do you think I took on Nigel Farage in the TV debates at the European elections? Because I thought it would be easy – me defending Britain’s membership of the EU, him bashing Brussels?
I took him on because we were in single figures in the opinion polls and we had nothing to lose. But I still lost.
The Liberal Democrats will borrow less than Labour, but we’ll cut less than the Tories.
Equidistance, split the difference, plague on both your houses, the third or middle way. It’s worked before. The only problem is that, this time, we have to pretend we are not in government.
Miliband is now promising a new Nirvana where everyone will be well-off, no one will be out of pocket, we don’t need to cut government spending and the public finances will be miraculously fixed.
How dare he? That was always our line.
Conservative Ministers have dragged their feet in implementing Lib Dem border controls.
What do you mean, people will fall about laughing if I put that bit in? No one will notice.
Government can strive to level the playing field so that you and your family can look to your future and see the chance to get on.
There is a lever on the side that will lower the gradient of the field to about 1 in 10, then your family can make a quick break up the left, cross to the centre, then slot it into the net. Unfortunately, there is no net, but government can’t do everything for you.
John RentoulReuse content