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8 October 2014updated 21 Jul 2021 12:28pm

Did Nick Clegg reveal his preferred successor in his speech?

Praise for Danny Alexander, but small digs at Tim Farron and Vince Cable.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Though this year saw a surprisingly chipper annual gathering for the Lib Dems, it wouldn’t have been Lib Dem party conference without some hearty leadership speculation. With Nick Clegg admitting he “won’t go on forever”, and rumours of the potential rivals jostling for position, an overriding theme of this conference was who will end up being his successor.

Within the party and among Westminster commentators, it’s widely thought that if the Lib Dems lose more than half of their seats in the general election, as predicted in the polls, Clegg will have to stand down. Equally, if Labour were to attempt a pact with his party in the event of a hung parliament, it’s thought they will want a different Lib Dem leader to work with.

Some elements of Clegg’s keynote speech to party conference this afternoon suggested some thoughts about his successor were also playing on his mind. He praised a couple of the supposed leadership hopefuls: Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Energy Secretary Ed Davey. However, he only tossed off-the-cuff playful digs at the two favourites: party president Tim Farron and Business Secretary Vince Cable.

Of Alexander, he said:

Danny set it all out on Sunday: Eliminating the deficit in the first three years of the next parliament, and then bringing debt down steadily and sustainably. Running a budget that is balanced overall and – this is crucial – doing it in a way that allows us to invest in Britain’s creaking infrastructure too . . .

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In 2012 – I’ll never forget this – Danny and I said: let’s go further and faster to cut people’s income tax. It’s possible now, so why wait? George Osborne turned to me and said: I don’t want to deliver a Liberal Democrat Budget.

Of Davey, he said:

Both parties in this Government promised we would stick to our green commitments, but it has taken constant pressure from the Liberal Democrats – not least Ed Davey – to hold the Tories to their word. And I can tell you now that a sustainable environment will remain at the heart of our vision for Britain’s future – it’s not green crap to us.

He also praised another potential hopeful, the health minister Norman Lamb, saying he deserved “a medal” for the “tireless work” he’s done on mental healthcare in government.

However, when it came to Farron – the cheery frontrunner for the party’s next leader – he simply told a joke about his uncanny impression of the Ukip leader when helping Clegg rehearse for the television debates earlier this year. He said the party president had been “so convincingly brilliant at copying Nigel Farage” it was “terrifying”. He also noted that Farron was “even wearing a purple tie”.

Then there was a little dig at Cable. Urging his party not to hold back on their attacks on the Conservatives, Clegg referred to the Business Secretary’s reputation for disliking the Tories and therefore being an awkward coalition minister: “Vince, you’ve got to start telling us what you really think about the Tories”.

Although such jokes and asides never feature in the text of party conference speeches pre-briefed to the press, it is still significant that there weren’t references in either the original text or the delivered version to the work Cable has done in government, or Farron has done for the party. All this points to Alexander – a more likely candidate than Davey, who is not as popular or influential in the party – being Clegg’s preferred successor.

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