Nick Clegg has declared that there is "no future" for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour as he appealed to his party to show "patience" and maintain a united front with the Conservatives.
In an interview with The Independent on the eve of Liberal Democrat conference starting today, he promised his party it would reap the electoral rewards if it held its nerve about its slump in the opinion polls.
He said: "There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party.
"I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was."
His comments suggest Mr Clegg is resigned to losing a section of his party's support after departing from the strategy of Charles Kennedy, who opposed the Iraq war. An Ipsos MORI poll this week showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 37 per cent with Liberal Democrats on 15 per cent, down from the 23 per cent they won at the May election. Some 32,000 people have joined Labour since May, including 10,000 who formerly supported the Liberal Democrats. Although 600 members have quit Mr Clegg's party, another 4,500 have joined.
In his keynote speech to the Liverpool conference on Monday, Mr Clegg will try to reassure his internal critics that he has not become a remote technocrat or lost sight of their concerns since joining the Coalition with the Tories.
He said: "When you go into government, particularly in such a dramatic way, you get a bunch of Liberal Democrats who walk through the door of Whitehall and the rest of the party does not necessarily walk through the door with you.
"So this [conference] is an incredibly important opportunity for those Liberal Democrats who are in government to show people in the party that they retain the same values, instincts and ambitions – that walking through the door of power does not mean you lose your soul."
Admitting the looming spending cuts were overshadowing the Government's other work, the Deputy Prime Minister said: "If anything, we are doing the most difficult things now, partly because everything is so obscured by the bad, worrying news about deficit reduction. Rather than it getting worse, maybe over time – after very, very difficult decisions on public spending – the wider purpose and vocation of the Government will become more obvious."
He pledged that one of the most radical programmes of any government for a "long, long time" would achieve more on political reform, civil liberties and protecting pensioners than Labour did in 13 years, combined with "an impeccably Liberal approach" to the NHS, education and welfare reform. "This is not some arbitrary menu of rushed proposals cobbled together. They reflect, right across the piece, big, long-standing Liberal aspirations," he said.
Acknowledging the need to sell the reforms, Mr Clegg said: "Both for the Lib Dems as a party and for the country, we need to be more explicit about what a radical, reforming government this is going to be. The worst thing would have been to go into government and be an insipid adornment to the establishment way of doing things."
However, some government policies may come under fire at the Liverpool conference. Some Liberal Democrats are worried that the Government's "free schools" dilute the role of local authorities; that the party was bounced into accepting Tory health reforms and that a proposed benefits shake-up will harm vulnerable people.
Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat leader insisted his party is "much calmer, more united and level-headed" than portrayed in the media.
Admitting the conference took place at a difficult moment, he said: "Public anxiety about the Comprehensive Spending Review is now at its height. We are at the very worst point in the cycle. It is the worst of all worlds. There is acute uncertainty about the unknown and we have not yet been able to put people out of their misery by explaining what is going to happen. That vacuum gets filled by an immense amount of fear and, in some cases, outlandish scaremongering.
"I certainly didn't go into politics to make cuts. I really hope that come the next election in five years, we will not be defined by cuts alone.
"People will look back on the deficit reduction plan and realise it was necessary to get the economy going and they will see a wider picture – a new kind of politics after the expenses scandal; greater fairness in our schools; a more accountable health service and restored civil liberties." He promised that radical policies on the environment were "in the engine room" and would be "in the shop window" before Christmas.
Pleading with his party to keep the polls "in perspective", Mr Clegg said: "All governments have phases. The problem is the 24/7 media culture. The danger is that everyone loses the patience required to allow governments to do big, good things. They don't happen overnight.
"If you obsess constantly about every passing opinion poll and headline, you never end up doing anything big or changing a thing. We are trying to do something very big, very dif- ferent."
Urging his party to "have real confidence", he said: "I am incredibly proud that the Lib Dems have taken this really big, brave step. I think we will benefit from it in the end. It requires not only courage; it requires patience."
Asked if his party was already running out of patience, he replied: "We have waited for 65 years to get into government. I think we can wait for a few more months and years."
Mr Clegg insisted: "Behind closed doors, I am very, very tenacious in making sure the policies we produce as a government have a Lib Dem imprint on them from top to bottom."
He rejected calls for him to "pick a fight" with David Cameron to reassert his party's separate identity. "Synthetic arguments in many ways would destroy one of the greatest assets of this government – people like seeing people from different parties working together," he said.
"It is not a game of parallel shopping lists. What is emerging is something much more interesting – a mix, a blend of things. Of course you get tensions in a coalition and there are differences of emphasis, but we have been working incredibly hard to combine thinking on both sides." A "classic example" is an NHS policy merging Tory plans for GP commissioning with Liberal Democrat proposals to decentralise and make the service accountable to local government.
He wants to find a common policy on university funding so the Liberal Democrats, who want to phase out tuition fees, do not need to exercise their right to abstain in Parliament. "We are going to look under every stone," he said. "Previous governments have looked and failed. We may be defeated again by the sheer practicalities of it. The work has not finished yet."
Mr Clegg is "confident" the Coalition will run its full five-year course and that the Yes campaign will win the referendum due next May on bringing in the alternative vote at general elections. He said many voters would not focus on the issue until the last minute.
Ruling out an electoral pact with the Tories at the next election, he said: "Voters tell politicians what they want through the ballot box. Constantly second-guessing them by speculating whether the parties should gang up on each other misses the point."
Perhaps surprisingly, he does not rule out a coalition with Labour next time. His approach will be "exactly the same" as this year – that the party with the most votes and seats in a hung parliament should have the first crack at forming a government.
Although Labour's "vitriol, bile and insults" are now being aimed at him personally, he hoped the party would stop talking to itself after its leadership election, and he has no intention of returning the fire.
It has been a whirlwind four months for Mr Clegg, who stood in for Mr Cameron after the birth of his daughter and death of his father. His two weeks in Spain last month already feels like a long time ago. He quips that he will insist on having a longer break next summer, even if he and the Prime Minister leave someone else in charge.
On some days Mr Clegg works from 6am to 10pm but he and his working wife, Miriam, try to ensure that one of them puts their three young sons to bed and does the school run – as Mr Clegg did yesterday. "I would hate to think when I leave politics and look back on these years that I may have had an exciting time in politics but I wasn't a good dad. Nothing in politics is worth that," he said.
The Liberal Democrat Conference, 18-22 September 2010
Today 6.30pm: Nick Clegg leads rally marking launch of Yes campaign for next year's AV referendum
Morning: Speech by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Afternoon: Clegg holds question and answer session with party members
Morning: Debate on motion opposing Coalition's free schools and academies programme
Afternoon: Keynote speech by Clegg
Morning: Clegg to fly to UN conference on the Millennium Development Goals in New York
Speech by Simon Hughes, deputy party leader
Afternoon: Speech by Chris Huhne, Energy and Climate Change Secretary
Possible debate on Trident nuclear weapons system
Morning: Final chance for debate on Trident
Speech by Vince Cable, Business Secretary