The Lib Dems can’t say they weren’t warned. At last year’s conference Nick Clegg promised “savage cuts“; this year he’s got the chance to defend them. With Clegg due at the UN General Assembly this evening, his keynote speech comes several days earlier than usual.
We’ve already got a flavour of the address from the extracts in the papers this morning and, judging by those, Clegg has two key messages: 1) The coalition is a temporary, not a permanent alliance, and 2) The cuts are necessary and Labour’s position on the deficit is absurd and irresponsible.
Of the coalition, he will say:
The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are, and always will be, separate parties with distinct histories and different futures. But for this parliament we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. That is the right government for now.
And on Labour and the deficit, he will attack the “absurd cardboard cut-out argument that there is this la-la land where you do not have to take any difficult decisions, no jobs are lost, no cuts are made, there is no pain, where everything recovers miraculously by osmosis — the Ed Balls view of the future — and that we are like modern-day Herods, slaying the firstborn”.
It won’t go down well with the left of his party. Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth, has admitted that he’s “straining at the straps” and isn’t even attending conference this year. The reliably rebellious Bob Russell has said he agreed to the coalition through “gritted teeth”.
Meanwhile, Evan Harris, standard-bearer of the party’s secular left, has a typically cogent piece in the Guardian this morning, reminding Clegg that it’s really not good form to dress regressive cuts up as “progressive”.
But, much to the media’s dismay, the Lib Dem grandees are on-message this morning. Simon Hughes, that barometer of grass-roots opinion, has declared that the decision to back early cuts was “terribly simple“, and Paddy Ashdown has said he backed the coalition “right from the start“.
A debate on free schools and academies this afternoon may provide an opportunity for dissent but, for now, it doesn’t look like there’ll be any blood on the floor this year.