Nick Clegg last night warned Liberal Democrat supporters to "get used" to protesters as he launched an impassioned defence of his party's record in Government so far.
With police in Sheffield gearing up for the largest demonstations South Yorkshire has seen since the 1984-85 miners' strike, Mr Clegg admitted that his party was more used to being protesters themselves than being protested against. But he called on members to "hold their nerve" and insisted that they were helping to build "a new economy from the rubble of the old". "It is not easy for us as a party to be the focus of protests," he said. "Some of our proudest moments have been on marches: against climate change, against child detention, against the illegal war in Iraq. We've put down the placards and taken up the reins of power. It's a big change but it is worth it. You can't do everything when you are in power, but you can't do anything when you are not. With power comes protest. We need to get used to it."
Mr Clegg faces a difficult couple of days in Sheffield – the city he represents as an MP – with expected defeats against the leadership on the conference floor and protests outside.
Yesterday, South Yorkshire police said the operation to control today's expected 10,000-strong demonstation by trade unions and students would be the biggest challenge the force had faced since the floods which devastated parts of the county in 2007. "We hope for the best and have planned for the worst," said Assistant Chief Constable Max Sahota.
In Mr Clegg's rally speech last night, he insisted the Liberal Democrats had made the right choice by going into government with the Tories and launched a scathing attack on Labour. "While we are taking the tough decisions to clear up the mess Labour made of our country, they are offering nothing," he said.
"When they try to make you feel guilty for going into a Coalition with the Conservatives to clear up their mess, remind them what they left behind: a country on the brink of bankruptcy; banks running amok; locking up innocent children in places like Yarl's Wood and Dungavel; invading Iraq; 28 days' detention; ID cards."
Earlier, Mr Clegg and other Lib Dem frontbenchers went out campaigning in Sheffield to show that the party was not "hiding away" from voters. The latest YouGov survey for The Sun puts the Lib Dems on just 9 per cent, trailing well behind their Conservative coalition partners on 34 per cent and Labour on 45 per cent.
Mr Clegg said he was looking forward to taking on his critics at the conference, accusing other parties of trying to bury internal dissent. "We are very open and very democratic. You do not have these North Korean-style conferences like you do in the other parties where everyone just agrees with each other and nods robotically at whatever the leader says," he said.
"There are going to be some demonstrations outside and some debate inside, and I think that is exactly right when the Liberal Democrats are in government at a controversial time."