This wasn't the speech Clegg needed

The Lib Dem leader offered little to reassure his anxious party.

Addressing a party that has lost more than half of its support since the election, a quarter of its membership and hundreds of its councillors, perhaps it's not surprising that Nick Clegg felt the need to reassure the Lib Dems that they would, at least, still exist by the time of the next election. "If we secure our country's future, we will secure our own," he cried, suggesting that extinction was not an unthinkable outcome.

The big policy announcement was that he would block any reduction in the 45p tax rate. While he "conceded" the cut from 50p to 45p, Clegg declared that all future tax cuts must pass "one clear test": "do they help people on low and middle incomes get by and get on?" The problem with this argument is that it applies equally well to the original cut. Why is it only now, after the government has handed 14,000 millionaires a £40,000 tax cut, that Clegg discovers his progressive soul and insists any measures must benefit lower earners? With the exception of one token reference to taxing "unearned wealth", we also heard nothing about the new "wealth tax" he had previously spoken of.

For much of the speech, which was short by recent standards, it was what Clegg didn't say that was most notable. There was no mention of the NHS (perhaps understandably), nothing on constitutional reform (the Alternative Vote and House of Lords reform having been defeated) and nothing on welfare. It is some indication of Clegg's standing in the party that the biggest cheer came when he announced that a former leader, Paddy Ashdown, would chair the party's 2015 election campaign.

Today, Clegg needed to reassure anxious activists that he has a plan to avoid a disastrous defeat at that election. In that task, he singularly failed. His voice rising with anger, the Deputy PM declared that "it was Labour who plunged us into austerity and it is we, the Liberal Democrats, who will get us out." But the failure of the coalition's strategy to deliver growth (indeed, its success in delivering recession) means there is no end in sight for austerity. "Let's go for it!," he rather limply ended. But few, one sensed, were prepared to follow him.

Nick Clegg gives his keynote speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.