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.