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Clegg’s passable speech tries to distinguish his party from the Tories while also toeing the Coalition line

By Peter Hoskin
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After — what was it? — two, three, four weeks, the Liberal Democrat conference has finally come to a close with Nick Clegg’s speech. It was, in the end, a strange sort of address. The words read as though they’re meant to be forceful and defiant, but they just didn’t come across that way. The Liberal Democrat leader seemed to be split between so many messages — to his party, to wavering voters, to Labour, to the Tories — that he couldn’t put his all into any one of them.

Where Mr Clegg was strongest, I thought, was in those areas of mutual Coalition agreement. Deficit reduction was presented as non-negotiable: “we need to regain control of public spending,” he said. And he went out of his way to attack Ed Balls and Labour — not, specifically, Ed Miliband — for how they have handled the public finances in the past, and for how they propose to handle them in future. But the Liberal Democrat leader did tell this story differently, with a greater human emphasis, from how David Cameron or George Osborne might. The deficit reduction programme isn’t as harsh as some claim it is, he suggested — and it’s being done to overcome a situation in which “we now spend more servicing the national debt than we do on our schools.”

There were other passages that brought Tory rhetoric, as well as substance, to mind. Mr Clegg began his speech with that lesson from the Olympics that Mr Cameron related several weeks ago: that success can only be achieved after much hard work. And one of his attacks on Labour — “So let’s take no more lectures about betrayal. It was Labour who plunged us into austerity and it is we, the Liberal Democrats, who will get us out” — closely resembled one made by Mr Cameron, over poverty, in his own conference speech of 2009 (and one that he should repeat more frequently, in my opinion).

There were attacks from Clegg on his Coalition partners, too, but they were limited in scope and quantity. By way of differentiating his own party, he laid into the Conservatives’ green credentials, quipping that, “Of course, there was a time when it looked like they got it … The windmills gently turning; the sun shining in. As a PR exercise, it was actually quite brilliant” — but, electorally speaking, I doubt that will bother the Tory leadership too much. And there was also a dig at Liam Fox — but, likewise, I doubt that will bother the Tory leadership too much, either. These attacks had a whiff of pre-approved-ness about them.

When it came to hard policy, there was very little fresh stuff in there. We heard Mr Clegg say that the 45p rate shouldn’t be allowed to go down to 40p in this Parliament, but I doubt that was a realistic prospect anyway. We heard him talk up wealth taxes, but there was little extrapolation from there. And we heard about green, green, green, but his main claim there was basically that the Lib Dems have influenced existing Coalition policy. It also inspired the speech’s worst gag, that “To make blue go green you have to add yellow”. (Although, bad jokes aside, the Conservatives still might want to prepare a distinctly conservative environmental agenda to counter that argument.)

To be fair, Mr Clegg did also announce a new “catch-up premium” for children who have fallen behind at school, which probably does count as a Lib Dem policy success. It might also turn out to be another gradated policy, along the lines of the pupil premium or the income tax threshold: i.e. whenever more money can be found, the policy can be extended. These sorts of policies seem to suit the Lib Dems, as it means that always have new successes to claim within government. And they suit the Tories too, as it means they always have bargaining chips to barter in return for other policies.

Anyway, this was okay rather than electrifying stuff from Nick Clegg. He managed to kick out at both the Tories and Labour, suggesting that the Lib Dems are fairer than the former and more responsible than the latter, but didn’t really make it sound convincing. He also managed to remain loyal to the Coalition. But perhaps the response from the congregated Lib Dem activists said it all. Their biggest cheer was for the news that Paddy Ashdown is to chair the party’s general election campaign.

> P.S. Here's my recent post on why Tories shouldn't be quick to pour scorn on Nick Clegg.