Nick Clegg wrapped up the Liberal Democrat conference in fine style yesterday. Not because his closing speech was a marvel of oratory. Nor even thanks to the well-trailed announcement of free school meals for five- to seven-year olds from next September. But because, after three-plus years of soul-searching and desertion, the rallying cry – “we are a party of government now” – is halfway true at last.
Mr Clegg’s Glasgow speech had some merit. With its repeated stress on the dangers of a majority government, it was the clearest statement yet of his strategy for the general election. Labour cannot be trusted with the economic recovery, the Tories cannot be trusted to ensure that it is fair; a coalition with a restraining, Liberal Democrat hand on the tiller, however, ensures the best of both worlds regardless.
Between the list of his party’s coalition achievements – the pupil premium, say, or the higher tax threshold – and the list of crucial “No”s – to proposals to let employers fire staff at will, for example, or plans to cut inheritance tax – Mr Clegg’s message is not implausible. But the real achievement of the conference is that, amid grassroots scepticism and the near-revolt of Vince Cable, it was not lost in the noise.
Mr Clegg has long struggled to convince some in his party that the compromises of government are worth making. On the economy, in particular, there are suspicions that the austerity agenda is no more than the ideological state-paring to be expected of a Conservative Chancellor.
Glasgow was the testing ground, and it could have gone very differently. Had Mr Clegg lost Sunday’s motion backing the Coalition economic strategy, he would have been irreparably damaged. And had the ever-ambitious Business Secretary boycotted the debate as planned, speculation about trouble at the top would have drowned out any rhetoric about “genuine pluralism” and “anchoring Britain to the centre ground”. Finally, and far from insignificantly, were there no signs of economic life, all claims to competence would have rung fatally hollow.
Instead, Mr Cable showed up (albeit reluctantly), the economy vote was won (as was another on retaining the 45p top tax rate), and the Deputy Prime Minister – self-proclaimed custodian of economy and society both – finds himself in as strong a position as he has been in. His party has haemorrhaged supporters since joining the Coalition. But those that remain are, finally, largely behind him.
Now the other, bloodier battle starts. The Liberal Democrat leader may have convinced his wavering party, but the electorate is a tougher proposition. Indeed, even as he was speaking, ComRes published a poll indicating that more than two-thirds of voters would prefer a majority government next time around. “We aren’t done yet,” Mr Clegg proclaimed confidently yesterday. That remains to be seen.