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8 October 2014

Clegg comes to praise coalition, not bury it, but this felt like his last stand

The unmistakable impression left by the Lib Dem leader's speech was that he is preparing to depart the stage. 

By George Eaton

After the festival of Tory bashing that has been this week’s Lib Dem conference, it would be easy to assume that the party would never dare enter government with them again. But in his speech this afternoon, Nick Clegg paid passionate tribute to his partnership with the villainous Cameron and Osborne. In an lengthy section towards the end of his address, he restated the coalition’s original raison d’être: “After the 2010 election, the Conservatives could not have formed a government and secured this economic recovery without the Liberal Democrats … and the Liberal Democrats could not have secured this economic recovery without the Conservatives.” 

Faced with the likelihood of another hung parliament next year, he affirmed his belief in the superiority of coalition over confidence and supply and minority government. In a sincere,  if doomed, attempt to once more frame himself as an outsider, he declared: “I never lose sight of the fact that simply forming a successful coalition unlocks the grip on power of the old, establishment parties. It undermines the soulless pendulum swing of red/blue blue/red politics, and destroys once and for all their desperate claims that single party government is the only kind of government fit for our country.”

To this end, the speech positioned the Lib Dems to enter government again after May 2015, ideally through a renewal of vows with the Conservatives. It is notable that of the two red lines set out in the speech (an increase in the personal allowance to £12,500, and parity of esteem for mental health), the Tories have already accepted the first and would have no qualms with the second. 

While there were rhetorical barbs against Michael Gove (who “raided the budget for much needed school places in order to fund his Free School obsession”) and Theresa May (ordered to “stop playing party politics with national security”), this was a far more positive address than that delivered last year, in which Clegg memorably listed 16 Conservative policies vetoed by the Lib Dems. After again repenting for his failure on tuition fees, he hymned his party’s achievements in government: “the biggest change in income tax in a generation”, “the biggest overhaul of our pensions system”, “the biggest amount of money going into early years education”, “the biggest shake-up of parental leave”, and “the biggest ever commitment to renewable energy”. Don’t judge us by “the one policy we couldn’t deliver in government,” he cried, judged us by “the countless policies we did deliver”. When Clegg says he has no regrets about entering power, he truly means it. 

His pitch at the election will be to argue that neither Labour nor the Tories are fit to govern alone. The former being unwilling to deliver a “strong economy” and the latter unwilling to deliver a “fair society” (as he reminded us in a cringe-making call-and-response with activists). Clegg optimistically contended that “despite the febrile, angry mood of our times – there are millions of our fellow citizens who still long for a politics of reason, of fairness and of decency.” But if the message is not a problem, the messenger, as his subterranean personal ratings demonstrate, is. 

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And it was the messenger that frequently distracted from the message. With its often loose and jocular tone (“Farage” was pronounced with a French flourish), there was an unmistakably de mob happy vibe to this speech. As I wrote earlier this week, the working assumption among Lib Dems is that Clegg will depart the stage after the general election. As he melancholically reflected that he was no longer “the fresh faced outsider”, but that “we still stand for a different kind of politics”, it was impossible to avoid the impression that he is preparing to pass the torch to a fresher man (while he joked at Tim Farron and Vince Cable’s expense, he all but anointed Danny Alexander as his preferred successor when he hailed him as “the person responsible for the really tough job of repairing the damage to our public finances”). 

Barring a dramatic change of heart, the safe bet is that Clegg has just delivered his final speech as Lib Dem leader. 

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