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By Peter Hoskin
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After
— what was it? — two, three, four weeks, the Liberal Democrat conference has
finally come to a close with Nick Clegg’s speech. It was, in the end, a strange
sort of address. The words read as though they’re meant to be forceful
and defiant, but they just didn’t come across that way. The Liberal Democrat
leader seemed to be split between so many messages — to his party, to wavering
voters, to Labour, to the Tories — that he couldn’t put his all into any one of
them.

Where
Mr Clegg was strongest, I thought, was in those areas of mutual Coalition
agreement. Deficit reduction was presented as non-negotiable: “we need to
regain control of public spending,” he said. And he went out of his way to
attack Ed Balls and Labour — not, specifically, Ed Miliband — for how they have
handled the public finances in the past, and for how they propose to handle
them in future. But the Liberal Democrat leader did tell this story
differently, with a greater human emphasis, from how David Cameron or George
Osborne might. The deficit reduction programme isn’t as harsh as some claim it
is, he suggested — and it’s being done to overcome a situation in which “we now spend more servicing the national debt than we
do on our schools.”

There
were other passages that brought Tory rhetoric, as well as substance, to mind. Mr
Clegg began his speech with that lesson from the Olympics that Mr Cameron
related several weeks ago: that success can only be achieved after much hard
work. And one of his attacks on Labour — “So let’s take no more lectures about betrayal. It was Labour
who plunged us into austerity and it is we, the Liberal Democrats, who will get
us out” — closely resembled one made by Mr
Cameron
, over poverty, in his own conference speech of 2009 (and one that
he should repeat more frequently, in my opinion).


There
were attacks from Clegg on his Coalition partners, too, but they were limited
in scope and quantity. By way of differentiating his own party, he laid into
the Conservatives’ green credentials, quipping that, “Of course, there was a time when it
looked like they got it … The windmills gently turning; the sun shining in. As
a PR exercise, it was actually quite brilliant” — but, electorally speaking, I
doubt that will bother the Tory leadership too much. And there was also a dig at
Liam Fox — but, likewise, I doubt that will bother the Tory leadership too much,
either. These attacks had a whiff of pre-approved-ness about them.

When it came to hard
policy, there was very little fresh stuff in there. We heard Mr Clegg say that
the 45p rate shouldn’t be allowed to go down to 40p in this Parliament, but I
doubt that was a realistic prospect anyway. We heard him talk up wealth taxes,
but there was little extrapolation from there. And we heard about green, green,
green, but his main claim there was basically that the Lib Dems have influenced
existing Coalition policy. It also inspired the speech’s worst gag, that “To
make blue go green you have to add yellow”. (Although, bad jokes aside, the
Conservatives still might want to prepare a distinctly
conservative environmental agenda
to counter that argument.)

To be fair, Mr Clegg
did also announce a new “catch-up premium” for children who have fallen behind
at school, which probably does count as a Lib Dem policy success. It might also
turn out to be another gradated policy, along the lines of the pupil premium or
the income tax threshold: i.e. whenever more money can be found, the policy can
be extended. These sorts of policies seem to suit the Lib Dems, as it means
that always have new successes to claim within government. And they suit the
Tories too, as it means they always have bargaining chips to barter in return
for other policies.

Anyway, this was okay
rather than electrifying stuff from Nick Clegg. He managed to kick out at both
the Tories and Labour, suggesting that the Lib Dems are fairer than the former
and more responsible than the latter, but didn’t really make it sound
convincing. He also managed to remain loyal to the Coalition. But perhaps the
response from the congregated Lib Dem activists said it all. Their biggest
cheer was for the news that Paddy Ashdown is to chair the party’s general
election campaign.

> P.S. Here's my recent post on why Tories shouldn't be quick to pour scorn on Nick Clegg.

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