Nick Clegg has insisted that the Liberal Democrats would be the “comeback kids of British politics” as he frankly owned up to his “mistakes and miscalculations” during the Coalition government’s five years in office.
In his first major speech since the party’s “devastating” general election defeat, he admitted the Liberal Democrats had made a tactical error by not making the case passionately enough for the political centre ground.
Mr Clegg, who received two standing ovations at the party’s annual conference in Bournemouth, now plans to channel much of his political effort into making the case for continued British membership of the European Union.
He is also setting up a not-for-profit company to pursue causes about which feels strongly, including reforming drugs laws and improving mental health services.
The former Deputy Prime Minister resigned as party leader immediately after the party’s calamitous showing on 7 May in which just eight of their 57 MPs survived the meltdown in its support. He has maintained a low profile since then and took a long summer holiday as he pondered his political future.
Mr Clegg, who decided not to take a frontbench position under his successor, Tim Farron, told delegates that a “great big liberal-sized hole” had opened up in politics between the Tories and a “far-left” opposition under Jeremy Corbyn.
“I firmly believe that under Tim’s wonderful leadership we can be the comeback kids of British politics,” the former Deputy Prime Minister said.
“It won’t be easy, it won’t be instant and there will be setbacks along the way. But we will bounce back, because there is a place in British politics for tolerance, reason and compassion, there is a place in British politics for an open-minded, outward-looking, optimistic party.”
He argued that there was still tremendous goodwill towards the Liberal Democrats, and evidence of “buyers’ remorse” among natural sympathisers who switched to other parties at the election.
Mr Clegg conceded that his election message – that the party would add a “head” to Labour and a “heart” to the Tories in a hung parliament – made the centre ground “sound a bit too much like a tactic, rather than a place rich in values and conviction”.
He said: “I’m not sure we had an obvious strategic alternative, but I accept that criticism and take full responsibility for it. But what I don’t accept for one second is that the liberal, progressive, modern centre ground of British politics is an insipid place to be.”
At the conference, Norman Lamb, the former health minister, will warn that the NHS will “crash” without an immediate injection of cash.
He will back the idea of local areas being able to raise extra money for hospital and care services through the council tax, and for the public to be told exactly how much of their tax payments goes on the NHS.
“I am very interested in the idea of a dedicated NHS and care contribution – separating it out from the rest of taxation, clearly identified on your pay slip,” he will say.
“I am really interested in the idea of the right for local areas to raise additional funds for the NHS and care if they choose. Why can’t my county of Norfolk decide to spend more on vital services for older people, to improve cancer services or for mental health if it chooses?”
Mr Farron launched the party’s campaign for the UK to remain in the EU, insisting it amounted to a “fight for our civilisation” and warned that a British exit would be a “calamity” for the continent.Reuse content