Leading article: Clegg the credible

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Nick Clegg has done a good job of preparing the Liberal Democrats for an election that suddenly looks likely to be the closest since 1992, and possibly since 1974. His task has not been an easy one. The space for a distinctively liberal pitch to the voters has been squeezed where it has not simply fallen away. David Cameron has shifted the Conservative Party on green policy and civil liberties, while Europe and the Iraq war have become less pressing. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has moved the Labour Party's language away from at least some of his predecessor's aggressive authoritarianism.

Mr Clegg has to fight to be heard in this restricted space, while leading a party that, perhaps even more than Labour, harbours a deep suspicion of its leaders. Hence, the background noise to this weekend's Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham: the rumblings of discontent from the party membership against the possibility of working with the Conservatives in a hung parliament.

And yet, somehow, Mr Clegg has kept his head and is showing a new confidence and clarity at just the right time. There were those who were puzzled last year when he set out the doctrine that the leader of the party with the most seats in a hung parliament should have the first right to try to form a government. With the Conservatives enjoying a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, it seemed, unnecessarily, to break the first rule of leading the third party: don't voluntarily discuss hung parliaments.

Now it looks rather prescient. It means he has pre-empted the inevitable questions about which party the Lib Dems would prefer to work with if the election outcome is inconclusive. He can say it is up to the voters: that he is not a kingmaker; 40 million voters are the kingmakers. This allows him to move on to the next stage, of setting out the important policies for which the Lib Dems are seeking a mandate, and which they would try to secure in a hung parliament.

They are: tax cuts for the low-paid and tax rises for the rich; more money for school pupils from deprived areas; a green economy; and electoral reform. Those seem to be admirable priorities, although any proposal to increase public spending seems a little detached from the seriousness of the state of the public finances. In particular, we welcome the Lib Dem attempt to hold the two largest parties to their rhetorical conversion to the green cause.

The most important issue in the election, however, is what to do about the deficit. On this, as Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, confirmed yesterday, the party sides with Labour against the Conservatives. "Spending cuts must not be forced through too soon, making the recession worse," Mr Cable said. Meanwhile, Mr Cameron said in his weekly video broadcast: "We have got to act now."

There is an apparent contradiction here. If there is a hung parliament, and the Conservatives were the largest party, would the Lib Dems try to block early public spending cuts? Or would they respect Mr Cameron's right to present a Queen's Speech and a Budget? Those are precisely the kind of questions into which Mr Clegg does not want to be drawn. When they are put to him, his recent fluency and clarity desert him, as they did in his interview with The Economist last week, in which he said: "I have never been foolish enough to try and rule great things in or out, other than rule one thing in, which is that I am not going to put the cart before the horse."

However, by setting out the ground rules and his own party's priorities, he has given himself as much negotiating room as is possible. His party goes into the election in good shape, holding steady at just under 20 per cent in the opinion polls, with every expectation of outperforming them, as in the past. The Lib Dems are not well placed to make many gains, but are confident of holding on to almost all of their current 63 seats. Such a large contingent of MPs maximises the chances, if the gap between the Conservatives and Labour remains small, of a hung parliament. It also means a deeper pool of talent from which to draw for his frontbench team.

With the likes of Mr Cable, Chris Huhne and David Laws, the Lib Dem team bears comparison with those of the two larger parties. Thus from the platform in Birmingham today Mr Clegg is able to address his party and the country from a position of more credible strength than any of his predecessors since David Steel in the 1970s. And that, for the causes in which this newspaper believes, can only be a good thing.

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