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Nick Clegg finds a strategy

For many Lib Dems returning from this week’s party conference in Brighton, the truly appalling weather may be what sticks in the memory. As strong winds and torrential rain lashed the conference venues, the headline writers had an easy time punning on the storms enveloping the unpopular junior member of the Coalition Government.

Foul as the weather was, this conference was memorable for a more important reason; the Lib Dems leadership finally decided on a credible strategy that stands a fighting chance of rescuing them from electoral oblivion in 2015.

Delivering his leader’s speech on Wednesday, Nick Clegg outlined the heart of this strategy when he said  ‘Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer? Because the truth is that only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted on the economy and relied upon to deliver a fairer society too.’  And to ram home the message, Mr Clegg spent a large chunk of his speech reminding his audience that the Lib Dems had joined the Coalition Government primarily out of duty to help solve the dire economic problems facing the country.

To which, I say – about time! It has seemed blindingly obvious to me – as to many others – that the Lib Dems haven’t stood a chance of regaining popular support without reminding the electorate at every opportunity why they threw their lot in with the Conservatives in the first place, namely to help tackle the economy and ensure the UK has a government with a working majority that can take tough decisions on spending and taxes.  For a party which fought most of the 2010 election to the left of the Labour party, to go into coalition with the Conservatives was a big shift  which required almost constant explanation to the voters. Yet Mr Clegg and many of his colleagues seem to have spent the last two years talking about anything but the economy.  AV, Lords Reform, Green taxes, Social Mobility, employee share ownership; the list is long of areas on which Nick Clegg has used precious airtime to talk to the voters, yet none of them have been issues which win elections or which explain the Lib Dems’ core purpose in government.

So why has he finally got the right strategy? Firstly because he has reached a firm view on where the other two main parties will fight the 2015 election; the post-Steve Hilton Tories will be to the right of their last manifesto, while Ed Miliband will be to the left of the Labour platform in 2010.  Both these assumptions seem reasonable and provide some centre ground on which the Lib Dems can pitch their tent.  Secondly, because he has clearly looked long and hard at the polling numbers and seen that the Lib Dems risk being given no credit for any economic recovery while being still blamed for infamous u-turns (however sorry he is) on issues such as tuition fees. At a fascinating Times fringe meeting on Monday, Populus chief pollster, Rick Nye laid out in forensic detail just how dire the Lib Dems’ polling position is. Half way through the government they have acquired all the traditional negatives of a governing party; broken promises, disappointment, disagreement but none of the virtues of competence, authority and leadership for which even an unpopular government can command some respect from the electorate.  Faced with this, they have to start talking about the economy again and present a future offer which looks to maximise voter unease with the other two parties. For the first time in two years, Nick Clegg has  found a way to articulate not just why the Lib Dems are in coalition now but why anyone should consider voting for them in the future. If he doesn’t drive this strategy effectively, the storms of this last week will be nothing in comparison to those that will envelop both his leadership and his party.


Last updated 29/06/2016