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Published: Wednesday 8th October 2014 by The News Editor
In his final conference speech before next year’s general election, Nick Clegg acknowledged that the Liberal Democrats had been tainted by office but insisted they still represent the “decent, British values” held to by voters.
The Deputy Prime Minister said only his party can offer voters both economic competence and social fairness in next May’s poll, which they will fight on a platform of “opportunity for everyone”.
He accused David Cameron and Ed Miliband of lurching to the right and left in response to the challenge of Ukip and the SNP, and claimed that only the Lib Dems were refusing to “trade in fear” and standing firmly against the “un-British” politics of “blame and grievance” represented by Nigel Farage’s party.
In an apparent recognition that his personal unpopularity risks harming his party’s chances next May, the Lib Dem leader acknowledged that he was no longer the “untainted … fresh-faced outsider” who sparked Cleggmania in 2010 and vowed he would never repeat the “mistake” of his U-turn on university tuition fees.
He pleaded with the electorate not to judge him solely on the fee hike , but to give Lib Dems credit for policies like income tax cuts, better pensions, help in schools for disadvantaged children, free childcare, enhanced parental leave and investment in green energy.
Insisting the party had “an extraordinary record” in office, he asked voters: “How will you judge us? By the one policy we couldn’t deliver or by the countless policies we did deliver in Government?”
In a 52-minute address concluding the annual gathering in Glasgow, Mr Clegg cheekily offered his thanks to Mr Miliband and George Osborne for helping to highlight the Lib Dem message with their own conference speeches – in which the Labour leader failed to mention the national deficit and the Chancellor promised tax cuts for the wealthy while slashing £3 billion from benefits for the poor.
“Let’s face it, they couldn’t have been more helpful even if they’d tried,” he joked.
“Fairness without a strong economy does not work. A strong economy without fairness doesn’t work either.
“And – as the last few weeks have now put beyond doubt – there’s only one party with the head and the heart, the resolve and the compassion, to deliver both, to deliver opportunity for everyone – and it’s us.”
He accused Mr Cameron of stealing the Lib Dems’ flagship pledge of a £12,500 income tax threshold. And he risked angering Tories by breaching the confidentiality of behind-the-scenes coalition discussions to reveal that the Prime Minister and Chancellor had privately dismissed previous hikes in the personal allowance as “your tax cut, Nick” fit only for a “Liberal Democrat budget”.
In a direct challenge to the two larger party leaders, Mr Clegg said: “Ed Miliband – you might have forgotten what you did to our economy, but we have not. And the British people don’t want a Labour government running their country, racking up debts for our children and grandchildren to pay.
“David Cameron – you can copy our ideas but you will never imitate our values. And the British people don’t want a Conservative government running their country which only looks after its own kind.”
Unlike the Tories, Mr Clegg said he would fund a 2016 rise to £11,000 in the threshold below which no income tax is payable by hiking capital gains tax and clamping down on tax avoidance.
“The difference is that they want to cut taxes for the wealthiest, paid for by the working-age poor; we want to cut taxes for working people, paid for by the wealthiest,” he said.
Mr Clegg confirmed plans to improve NHS handling of mental health by introducing the first ever limits on waiting times for treatment – something he said would be “smack-bang on the front page of our next manifesto”.
And he said he would keep “hammering away” for constitutional change, despite being “thwarted” on voting reform and overhaul of the House of Lords in coalition.
Rejecting arguments that the Lib Dems should now distance themselves from coalition with the Tories, Mr Clegg insisted he was “immensely proud” of the achievements of the past four and a half years and was not “suddenly going to pretend that it had nothing to do with us”.
“Say what you will about the Liberal Democrats,” he said. “We may no longer be untainted, as we were by the freedom of opposition. I may no longer be the fresh-faced outsider. But we still stand for a different kind of politics … O ur mission now is to give people a reason to reject bitter, us-and-them politics, to shun the politics of blame and fear, and choose something better.”
In an apparent plea to be allowed to play a part in a future coalition, he warned: “If the Liberal Democrat voice is marginalised in British politics, our country will be meaner, poorer and weaker as a result.
“We must not and cannot let that happen. We must make our voice heard.”
Urging his party to “come out fighting” despite its woeful position in the polls, Mr Clegg said: “Let our opponents say what they will … we are now the only party holding firm to decent, liberal values while anger and blame are on the rise.
“The only party refusing to trade in fear because we believe what the British people want desperately from their politics is hope. The only party who are as economically competent as we are socially fair – a party of the head and the heart, of compassion and resolve. The only party who says no matter who you are, no matter where you are from, we will do everything in our power to help you shine.”
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman described the speech as “t hat of a man trying desperately to justify the decision he and his party took to back the Tories all the way”.
“Nick Clegg was right about one thing in his speech,” said Ms Harman. “The Lib Dems should be judged on their record. It is a record of broken promises and weakness.”
Published: Wednesday 8th October 2014 by The News Editor