Liberal Democrat conference: What Nick Clegg said ... and what he really meant

Our political commentator reads between the lines of the Lib Dem leader’s big speech

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The Independent Online

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.

Politicians of every party have fed this growing cynicism by exaggerating and overstating what governments can do. We've all done it. I’ve been there. When I apologised for the disappointment and anger caused by our inability to scrap tuition fees, I knew we could never, ever make that mistake again.

We promised that Liberal Democrats would not be bound by boring facts such as that universities cost money. Sorry. What about a free (school) lunch and NHS spending paid for by the magic-money tax-avoidance tree? Jolly good.

Eliminating the deficit in the first three years of the next parliament, and then bringing debt down steadily and sustainably.

I won’t forget the deficit because it is written on the prompter. Also written on the prompter is the bit about how we don’t like political automata who deliver prepared sound bites.

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.

Ed 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 job.

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.

We still stand for a different kind of politics. Treating people like adults. Not shirking the difficult dilemmas this country faces, but confronting them head on. Not pretending there’s a magic wand answer to every problem when there isn’t.

We tried “magic wand” politics in opposition and all it produced was a dead rabbit in government, so let’s try the opposite approach: let’s tell people that there isn’t much we can do but we’ll try our best to make rabbit pie.

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 on the playing field to about 1 in 10, then your family team can look to make a quick break up the left before crossing to the centre and slotting it into the back of the net. Unfortunately there is no net, but government can’t do everything for you.

If you can see that you have a fair chance to get on in life … the anger, the powerlessness will wane and the hope of a better future can take root.

Unless you notice that someone is more successful than you on Facebook or Twitter.

There is no opportunity without a stronger economy … That's why Labour is not the answer. And without a fairer society you can't create opportunity for everyone, instead of just those lucky few at the top. That's why the Conservatives are not the answer.

Social justice and a strong economy: it worked for Tony Blair, but I won’t mention him.

I say this to Theresa May: stop playing party politics with national security. Stop playing on people's fears simply to try and get your own way. Your Communications Data Bill was disproportionate, disempowering – we blocked it once and we’d do it again.

I say this to get a round of applause because I’m only half-way through and I need to keep people’s attention. We’re Liberals, we care about this stuff.

To anyone who thinks that in the next parliament we should cut our losses and give up on our ambitions for real, meaningful political reform: no way.

If the Scottish National Party is agitating for a second referendum, why can’t we have another referendum on changing the voting system – but this time let’s go for full proportional representation: the d’Hondt system in multi-member constituencies with Droop quotas?

I am going to keep hammering away at the system every single day, because bit by bit that system will break to let the people in.

I have no idea what this means but it sounds good. I’ve blocked the Recall Bill to allow constituents to sack their MPs because it’s a stupid idea. Perhaps “let the people in” means continuous real-time referendums every time we have a vote in the House of Commons. Some of the party’s best brains are working on it now.

There are two other big commitments I want to single out today ... While I’m not going to get dragged into endless speculation about this or that red line in the event of another hung parliament, people do have a right to know what our priorities are.

I am going to provoke endless speculation about red lines in future coalition negotiations because that will strengthen our bargaining position. Just hoping that you won’t notice that I have failed to mention David Cameron’s plan to hold a referendum on Europe. That’s fine. I can live with it.

Tories insisting on tax cuts for the few; Lib Dems insisting on tax cuts for the many.

What unspeakable cads those Tories are. When I find out who has been propping up this evil lot in government for the past four years there will be trouble.

The British public … know we’ve been in government for this Parliament and we’re not suddenly going to pretend that it had nothing to do with us.

The British public have probably forgotten that we’ve been in government all this Parliament and we’re going to pretend that everything unpopular had nothing to do with us.

As someone who has grown more, not less, impatient with the establishment during my time in office, I have realised that what the vested interests would relish most is to eject us from office before our time is up.

Trappings of office? Security detail with curly wires behind their ears? Ministerial car? Privately-educated sons of bankers lording it over us? Makes me madder than ever. So mad that I ought to resign before my time is up, but there are only seven months to go so it hardly seems worth it.

We are now the only party … refusing to trade in fear … The only party who says no matter who you are, no matter where you are from, we will do everything in our power to help you shine.

One of five parties – six in Scotland and Wales – that refuses to trade in fear, and that wants the equal-opportunity sunshine to rule the day. If only elections were random multiple-choice votes – now there’s an idea – we would pick up 20 per cent of the vote. That’d do us.