21 Sep 2011

Nick Clegg: ‘We need to do more, we can do more’

For years, the Lib Dem leader’s speech was a longed for moment of coverage, rare access to the living rooms of the nation. Now, in government, Nick Clegg gets saturation coverage all year round. So this speech, like the whole conference, was more of an internal party conversation than usual. 

He started with a tribute to the party’s “grace under fire,” its “character,” and its “immense strength.” This is a cunnning way of asking people to recognise his own personal “grace under fire,” “character” and “immense strength,” without going through the embarrassment of spelling it out. Gordon Brown tried a similar subliminal message in his first Party Conference as Prime Minister in 2007 when, after terrorist incidents, foot and mouth etc he said “Britain has been tested and not found wanting” when he meant he had been tested and proved up to the job.

The Lib Dem leader’s aides could see that his speech would be reported in bulletins that would be dominated by news of economic gloom so they kept the message low key, slimmed down the joke and knockabout content. But they decided to have a slightlier perkier message than Vince of Darkness’s speech on Monday in which the Business Secretary said he couldn’t see light ahead. Mr Clegg instead talked about a new economy that would rise up. On the question of what the government willl do beyond the deficit reduction plan to boost growth and get us to the brighter future he would only say “we need to do more, we can do more.”

The Lib Dems are now in a battle with Labour for the mantle of party against the vested interests so Nick Clegg got a pre-emptive strike in ahead of Labour’s conference next week saying that Labour was the unions’ creature and had kow-towed to the City and Murdoch too. He also said “the two Eds” were Gordon’s backroom boys and in a further sign that someone had been going through Gordon Brown’s past speeches there was a pastiche of his “no time for a novice” dig at David Miliband with a “this is no time for the backroom boys” jibe.

Digs at the Tories were limited – but the Conservative backbenchers will hate his defence of the Human Rights Act as much as his faithful loved it: “It is here to stay,” he said.

It’s been a much steadier calmer conference than I would’ve predicted a year ago. But Nick Clegg’s been speaking to a smaller party, made painfully clear by the empty seats in what was a fairly small hall.


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