By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
Nick Clegg's speech to the Liberal Democrats' Spring Conference is well worth a read. It's well constructed and it has a clear, simple message at its heart. In the Deputy PM's words (my emphasis):
"You can’t trust Labour to build a strong economy. You can’t trust the Tories to build a fair society. Only the Liberal Democrats can deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life. Get used to those words, Conference. Get used to saying them. That’s the message I need you to deliver across the country. I need you to explain it to people each and every day, from now, for the next two years and beyond."
There we have it. The central pitch of the Liberal Democrats may not be particularly new but its simplicity is its strength. The Lib Dems will present themselves as the party that will moderate Labour or the Tories. Team Clegg will argue that it will pull a minority Labour government towards fiscal responsibility and a minority Conservative government towards social responsibility. We need to think carefully how we counter that.
Yesterday, Lord Ashcroft's marginal seats polling suggested the Tories could win 17 seats from the Lib Dems. How can we maximise the likelihood of that gain? Part of the answer to that question might be to paint the Lib Dems as a party thart doesn't moderate politics but pulls politics away from the wishes of the public. The Lib Dems are, after all, more libertarian on immigration than 70% of the public – more enthusiastic about European integration than Labour – more pro-costly-renewables than Al Gore – and as soft on crime as The Guardian. We have to be careful, however, not to obsess about those topics. We mustn't just assert our differences with the Lib Dems. We must also assert common ground on issues like low taxes for the low-paid and investment in the NHS.
Nick Clegg used his speech to make another attack on the Tory Right:
"The Conservative party knows it needs to stay on the centre ground to
have any chance of speaking to ordinary people’s concerns. At least the
leadership seem to. But they just can’t manage it, no matter how hard
they try. They’re like a kind of broken shopping trolley. Every time you
try and push them straight ahead they veer off to the right hand side."
"The Conservatives, on their own," he continued, "will never deliver the fairer society – it’s just not who they are. Take the Mansion tax. Even now, when millions of families are feeling the pinch, they still refuse to ask people who live in multi-million pound homes to chip in a bit more."
Labour didn't escape Nick Clegg's very political speech:
"Under Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, Labour remain a blank page in British politics. These people were in the government that crashed the economy before. They’ve given us no apology. No solutions. No plans. No sign that they even understand what they did. The truth is, left to their own devices, they’d do it again. And, I’m sorry, but you do not stand tall for one nation when you still bow to the union barons."
At the moment we have Lib Dem frontbencher after Lib Dem frontbencher attacking the Tories. Tory backbenchers are sometimes returning fire but Tory frontbenchers are almost completely silent. ConHQ argues that the attacks from Cable/Farron/Clegg on the Tories aren't boosting the Lib Dems. That might be true but the Lib Dem attacks can't be helping to deliver the core political aim of the Tory desire to get into government and assure voters that we meant what we said about protecting the NHS and the low-paid. Again and again the Lib Dems are saying these 'compassionate things' are only happening because of their presence in the Coalition. We seem to be observing Coalition etiquette in a way that the Lib Dems are not. Time for some mutually assured destruction if it continues?