Andrew Grice: Don't write off Nick Clegg just yet

The Week In Politics: The LibDem leader has reason to be optimistic
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The Independent Online

As Nick Clegg prepared for the Liberal Democrat conference, which starts today, a document he had eagerly waited for plopped on to his House of Commons desk, telling him what the public thinks of him.

"Focus on Nick Clegg", a summary of group discussions among small numbers of key voters carried out for the party, brought mixed news. Those people who know him like him and, contrary to a Westminster village myth, they don't muddle him up with David Cameron. Women, who regard Mr Clegg as honest, articulate and passionate, like him more than men do, although men see him as smart, approachable and in touch.

Overall, Mr Clegg is viewed as sincere. But he suffers from two problems: many voters simply do not know him at all, and many worry that, whatever his policies, he has little prospect of being able to implement them – the perennial credibility gap facing Britain's third party.

Their Bournemouth conference provides the Liberal Democrats with their best opportunity of the year to showcase their leader, his values and their policies to a wider audience. He hasn't had an easy start since he succeeded Sir Menzies Campbell last December. He has been eclipsed by Mr Cameron's successful pitch for the political centre ground. A credible official Opposition makes it even harder for the third party.

Yet we shouldn't dismiss or ignore the Liberal Democrats. They won5.9 million votes at the previous election, 22 per cent of those cast. We often hear about Labour stealing Tory policies but the Liberal Democrats often make the running, without getting the credit. Mr Clegg raised fuel poverty at his debut at Prime Minister's Questions, long before it became fashionable. Many of his party's ideas on the housing market and Northern Rock were eventually taken up by the Government.

Mr Clegg's new goal is to be ahead of the curve on tax and spending. He wants to spice up what is already a bold Liberal Democrat policy – to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 16p in the pound through a switch to "green taxes" and a squeeze on higher earners. Now he is proposing a £20bn reduction in spending taxes to fund tax cuts for those on low and middle incomes, providing a much-needed stimulus to the economy.

It's quite daring for a centre-left party, which until 2005 proposed higher taxes, to say it wants to cut the tax burden – and will alienate some traditionalists. There could be a tricky conference vote on Monday.

Mr Clegg hopes the idea will allow his party to outflank both main parties – no easy matter, symbolising the challenge facing his party at the next election, when it must try to stave off a Tory resurgence in the South-west and seize some Labour heartland seats in the North. The new recipe is a fairer tax system than Labour, which the Liberal Democrats calculate would be twice as redistributive as their 2005 programme. At the same time, it could undercut the Tories, who do not like it when their monopoly as the tax-cutting party is threatened.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, chose the week before the Liberal Democrat conference to use the wriggle room the Tories had always left themselves over their pledge to match Labour's spending totals (designed to head off Labour cries of "Tory cuts"). He signalled it would apply only to the next two years, not the third and final year covered by the Government's plans.

So all three parties are now engaged in a dance about our old friend "tax'n'spending" and will no doubt be keen to put on a show at their conferences over the next three weeks.

To lead the Liberal Democrats, you have to be an eternal optimist. So it is just as well that Mr Clegg defies the polls and the pundits by believing he is on course to achieve his goal to double his 63 MPs by the election after next.

His party's research gave Mr Clegg some grounds for hope.

While many voters have given up on Labour, support for the Tories is wide but shallow. Typical comments were: "I can't stand the present lot but I haven't the faintest idea what David Cameron stands for"; "David Cameron is just telling us what we want to hear" and "I don't like the idea of giving him the keys to No 10 without knowing what he will do."

It is premature to write off the Liberal Democrats: there might yet be a gap in the market for them.