Steve Richards: After stumbling on a 'tax and spend' landmine, he aimed his fire at the Tories

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The Independent Online

Nick Clegg faced the familiar daunting tasks as he addressed his MPs and activists in their last annual conference before the election. He had to enthuse his party and at the same time make the most of rare media attention to frame a message that appealed to a range of voters from the North and South, Tory and Labour. As an added twist Clegg faced obstacles that had arisen as a result of a few misjudged announcements and declarations that had dominated the conference.

What would he say about the "savage" cuts, the ill-thought-through "tax on mansions" and the internally unpopular proposal to no longer pledge the abolition of tuition fees? The answer was that he did not say anything about them at all. It was almost as if the mini dramas of recent days had not taken place.

This was a wise omission. There was not a lot Clegg could say without making matters worse. Privately even those close to the leader accept that the handling of the tax issue was poor. I would describe it as spectacularly amateurish.

Instead of reflecting on these details Clegg stuck more to what New Labour used to call the big picture. Yes, he would not avoid the hard spending decisions, but he would be tough for a purpose, which was to protect frontline services. Expect to hear similar broad arguments at the Labour and Tory conferences. Clegg called it "progressive austerity", a phrase that might point in an interesting direction once the policy programme is more clearly agreed.

The speech was more interesting in its positioning. Clegg affected to believe that Labour had already more or less ceased to exist. There were few attacks on Labour's policies. Instead he declared that the Brown administration was dying and the choice was between the "fake change" of the Conservatives and what he called the "real change" from the Liberal Democrats.

A larger section of the speech focused on the Tories, following through the idea he floated last week that his party could replace Labour as the main opposition. He proposed a redistributive tax policy, investment in frontline services and capital projects, radical green policies, a pro-European programme, a review of Trident and sweeping constitutional reform. He could do so with a degree of authentic urgency as it is an agenda that is distinct from the Conservatives and one that Labour claimed to support in 1997 but failed in some instances to pursue.

In between the big picture policy section Clegg spoke first about how he wanted to be Prime Minister. Later he outlined what a Liberal Democrat government would look like, with Cable as Chancellor, Chris Huhne as Home Secretary and the rest. He went through his entire fantasy cabinet up to his Secretary of State for Local Government. At first this seemed comically self indulgent, highlighting rather than challenging their distance from national power. Yet the device served a purpose. Clegg has a relatively strong parliamentary team. It is not difficult to imagine quite a few of them in the cabinet. More significantly Clegg cannot claim relevance by appearing close to another of the parties as Paddy Ashdown did in the build-up to the 1997 election, nor does he have a defining issue such as Iraq. So he has to raise the prospect of power on its own. Before the next election he has no other course.

The problem with the speech was the lack of a clear argument running through it. Clegg went around the course, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with a few clichés about the need for change. Arguably an overriding argument is not available to a party leader that seeks the elusive mix of a clear identity and votes from those that lean towards other parties. It is why Paddy Ashdown used to agonise over his speeches and Charles Kennedy started smoking again on the eve of his ones, having often given up during the summer. They agonise because they are in an agonising position that will only be relieved with electoral reform.

Still Clegg cheered a conference that was often surprisingly lifeless and confused. The speech was better than the events that preceded it. He must learn quickly from those events. Did he and others not meet in the summer to decide precisely and ruthlessly what the message of the conference should be and make sure that it would withstand media and party scrutiny? Did he not realise that by using the term "savage" in relation to cuts he would be asked for examples from now until the election? How did they unveil a tax policy without working out how it would be implemented and its impact in the media and on the party?

Clegg and Cable will not be the only senior politicians to stumble on a "tax and spend" landmine in the build-up to the election, but this week they seemed to head for one voluntarily. Much more work is needed to withstand the attention in a general election campaign. On the positive side Clegg's delivery yesterday shows that, like David Cameron, he has mastered the art of turning a formal speech into a conversation with his party and the electorate, a rare skill and one that will serve him well.