‘We need to lift the veil,” Nick Clegg said as he promised to talk more about his battles with the Conservatives inside the Coalition. While the Liberal Democrats’ private polling shows that one in four voters will either vote for the party or are considering it, it also reveals that many people have little idea what the Lib Dems have achieved in government since 2010.
In an important change of gear, Mr Clegg will talk more openly about what his party has stopped the Tories from doing, as well as highlighting the flagship Lib Dem policies the Coalition has implemented, such as the £10,000-a-year income tax threshold that starts next April. His message to voters is that if the Lib Dems had not been there the “nasty party” would have lurched to the right.
Rehearsing his speech to the Lib Dem conference in an interview with The Independent, the Deputy Prime Minister rattled off a list of Tory proposals that his party has vetoed. It includes a recent attempt to cut planned child care provision for two-year-olds; a 40p top rate of income tax (instead of the current 45p); cuts in inheritance tax for the rich; workers being “fired at will” without good reason; state schools being run for profit; a divisive two-tier examination system; and regional pay for public sector workers.
“These things would have happened if the country had turned blue,” Mr Clegg explained in his Whitehall office yesterday. “We need to explain that this country would be very different indeed – in my view a lot less fair – if the Conservatives had been left to their own devices.” The other half of the Lib Dems’ pitch is that, if they were in coalition with Labour after 2015, they would rein in a party that cannot be trusted to run the economy.
“We need to be unabashed about the fact that we have played a vital, even pivotal, role in saving the British economy and a leading role in providing fairness in the tax, education and skills systems and greening our economy for the future,” Mr Clegg said.
“We need to look people in the eye and say, ‘We got it right’. We made a big judgement, we were criticised for it, we were put under a lot of pressure, but we got it right,” he said. “There is a long way to go. But the clouds are lifting, there is brighter news, we have turned a corner and passed through the darkest hour. That would not have been possible if the Lib Dems had not held our nerve and held together as we have.”
The $64,000 question for many Lib Dems is: how does the party stop the Tories getting all the credit for the return to economic growth? His answer: “By telling the truth.” Another reason to “lift the veil” on the Coalition’s inner workings.
Mr Clegg is exasperated that left-wing critics within the party are threatening to defeat him on the economy, just when it is picking up. When he urges the conference to reject a rebel motion on Monday, he said, “I will be inviting delegates to put their hands up to admit we were right”. Rejecting claims that he is advocating “Osbornomics”, he insisted: “It is not an act of fiscal masochism as some people describe it, but quite a measured and stable approach to dealing with the deficit.”
Some of the critics want Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, to lead the party into the next election – among them Lord Oakeshott, who said woundingly on Thursday that Mr Clegg’s personal ratings were as bad as those of Michael Foot, the man who led Labour to a crushing defeat in 1983.
Mr Clegg replied: “I would miss [Lord Oakeshott] if he didn’t pop up at this time of year. It is like clockwork. The weather becomes foul, we have our conference, and up pops Matthew Oakeshott with some disobliging comments. It is his role in life. I can’t really take it that seriously.”
He insisted: “I will be the leader up to and beyond the next general election because the vast bulk of the party not only accepts but endorses the basic strategy as we move from being a party of opposition to one of government, a progressive party in the liberal centre. If you have a strategy you think is broadly the right one, the worst thing to do is constantly chop and change.
“Parties that becomes short-term, tactical, turn in on themselves, or duck and weave because of the latest poll, do very badly indeed. There is no clarity, you leave people confused, look weak and uncertain. It is not easy, but we have chosen the right path for the right reasons. Therefore it is essential we see it through.”
Mr Clegg takes more seriously the parting shot by Sarah Teather, the former Schools Minister, who, as she announced she will leave Parliament at the election, undermined his claims about standing up to the Tories by saying he had given too much ground on immigration and welfare.
While he dismissed her account as a “caricature”, and defended the Government’s £26,000-a-year cap on benefit payments for a family, he shared her concern about the “bedroom tax”. He said he was “the prime mover” in winning more discretionary funds for councils to ease the pain, and is nagging Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, to keep the controversial cuts in housing benefit under review.
“The unease, which I totally understand and in many ways share, is for those individuals who get caught out as the system is changed from one approach to the other,” Mr Clegg admitted. “We have got to keep this under review all the time.”
A debate has begun about the Lib Dems’ target audience in 2015. In a previous interview with The Independent, Mr Clegg in effect wrote off the 2010 Lib Dem voters who were appalled at his decision to enter a coalition with the Tories. But Tim Farron, the left-of-centre Lib Dem president, said this week: “The people who are most likely to vote for you next time are those who voted for you last time. You don’t write people off.”
Mr Clegg insisted there was no contradiction: his party would woo “soft Labour” as well as “soft Conservative” voters. All he meant was that some people wanted to cast a protest vote, and would never support a party in power.
“I am quietly optimistic,” he said. “I accept we have a huge mountain to climb. We have a long way to go. We have lost a lot of support.”
Today The Sun depicted him as a poodle, after a poll found that people thought it was the animal he most resembled. Revealingly, perhaps, his aides had not shown him it. I did. His instant response had some bite: “Just ask the Tory backbenchers who constantly complain I stop the Tory party from doing what they want. They say I am the tail wagging the dog.”