Clegg's strategy is clear, but now he must deliver

The next 12 months will show if the electorate is willing to give the Lib Dem leader a hearing.

I asked Nick Clegg yesterday at Lib Dem conference for a short description of what we stand for. What is the liberal language we should be using in our everyday conversation? What's the elevator sell?

I rather liked his answer: "We should answer the call of the head and the heart." By this he meant that we should offer the fiscal responsibility the country needs (and Labour can't claim to have delivered) and also ensure that the life chances of every person are never blighted by the circumstances of their birth - everyone should have an opportunity for greatness. The 'caring' territory that the nasty party (not my phrase) would struggle to own.

Reading the above makes perfect sense in the context of Nick’s speech to the Lib Dem conference yesterday. What’s interesting is that I wrote the above 12 months ago at the Birmingham conference. And here we are, 12 months on, and the message remains the same.

Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer? Because the truth is, only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted on the economy and relied upon to deliver a fairer society too.

And the other truth is that it’s been this ever since we entered government

Leading up to Nick’s speech, there was no shortage of advice about how we should restore our standing in the polls and in the eyes of the electorate. "Turn left" was the advice of the Telegraph's Mary Riddell – "The party’s voters won’t allow a deal with the Tories in 2015 – it’s time to make eyes at Labour". Keep right was the advice of Richard Reeves, Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, in the New Statesman– "Any attempt to position the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre left after five years of austerity government in partnership with the Conservatives will be laughed out of court by the voters – and rightly so".

But Nick’s message from the last week is clear: yes, I have made political mistakes, but my principles have stayed the same. And for the second half of this Parliament, I will demonstrate that we remain an economically responsible and socially liberal party and you will see that.

The chatter around the grassroots throughout the conference was pretty consistent. Yes, Nick’s got stuff wrong – and large swathes of the party remain livid about it. Yes he’s got a lot to prove – to us, even before the rest of the world. But the next 12 months will show if Nick can deliver against the agenda he outlined yesterday. And if the electorate is willing to give him a hearing.

The party has approved that agenda, supporting the leadership on its economic strategy, while giving it a bloody nose on socially illiberal Tory led policy like "secret courts".  Now let’s see the leadership deliver. The grassroots – and the electorate – are watching. And the clock’s ticking ...

Nick Clegg aims to present the Liberal Democrats as economically responsible and socially liberal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.