Hold your nerve, Clegg asks Lib Dems

By Alex Stevenson

Nick Clegg has appealed to Liberal Democrat members in his first conference speech as deputy prime minister to “hold our nerve”.

The request came just hours after conference delegates in Liverpool defeated the party leadership over the coalition government’s plans to create new free schools and academies.

Mr Clegg directly addressed the growing disquiet about the national tie-up with the Conservative party which has been evident among grassroots activists so far this conference.

“Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good. Hold our nerve and we will have changed Britain for good,” he began.

His speech played up the positives of a longer-term perspective, both in terms of governance and party politically, and concluded with a section anticipating the likely campaigning points at the planned 2015 election.

“The immediate future will not be easy, but the long-term prize is great,” he said, after listing proposed changes including a “fair tax system”, a Green Deal, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the restoration of traditional civil liberties.

“To those who are angry now about the difficult decisions needed to balance the budget you’ll be able to show that those decisions have set us on a better course with new growth and jobs that last,” he said, addressing concerns about the impending comprehensive spending review.

“Britain in 2010 is anxious, unsure about the future, but Britain in 2015 will be a different country… this is the goal we must keep firmly fixed in our minds. That is the prize.”

The deputy prime minister spent much of the early part of the speech defending the purpose of the coalition government, listing its early achievements and arguing it was the right kind of government for Britain.

“In life, two heads are usually better than one,” he argued. “And in politics, too, when the country faces grave challenges… two parties acting together can be braver, fairer and bolder than one party acting alone.”

Delegates uncomfortable with the Tory tie-up will be reassured by a clear statement from Mr Clegg ruling out a controversial proposal by Conservative MP Nick Boles.

He had suggested merging the parties and running on a ‘coalition ticket’ in the planned 2015 general election, sparking alarm from those on the left of Britain’s third party.

The Lib Dem leader stated that the Lib Dems and Conservatives “are and always will be separate parties, with distinct histories and different futures”.

He added: “But for this parliament we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. This is the right government for right now.”

Mr Clegg also addressed the ideological basis for the spending review, challenged the next Labour leader to “provide a decent alternative” and acknowledged the earlier free schools defeat.

“It wouldn’t be a Lib Dem conference if we didn’t have a motion that provoked strong passions on both sides,” he said.

The deputy prime minister announced a plan to allow local authorities to borrow against projected increases in business rates.

Questions about the scheme, including when it will be introduced and how the risk associated with it will be shared between councils and central government, could not be answered by aides, however.

The speech did not mention the ongoing debate within government about Britain’s nuclear deterrent Trident, which the Lib Dems had campaigned against replacing on a like-for-like basis in the general election campaign.

Aides said it also avoided personal touches from the deputy prime minister, in contrast to speeches before the election when he had struggled to raise his personal profile with voters.

Mr Clegg concluded by returning to the speech’s main theme of bracing the party for short-term unpopularity.

He concluded: “The years ahead will not be easy but they will make the difference our country needs.

“Stick with us while we rebuild the economy. Stick with us while we restore our civil liberties, protect our environment, nurture our children and repair our broken politics.

“Stick with us and together we will change Britain for good.”

Mr Clegg will not remain in Liverpool for the rest of the conference, as he and his predecessors have previously done, as he is flying to New York to participate on a United Nations summit on global poverty later this week.