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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.