Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg tells his party conference governing is “not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing”. Top Lib Dems tell Channel 4 News their leader had to be “realistic”.
The day after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its growth forecast for the British economy, the deputy prime minister made it clear that difficult decisions would not be shirked – and Liberal Democrats should “never apologise” for acting responsibly.
Speaking in Birmingham at the Liberal Democrat party conference, he said the test for liberals would always be the national interest.
“Not doing the easy thing. Doing the right thing. Not easy, but right,” he said.
Mr Clegg conceded there was a “long, hard road ahead” for the economy, following the IMF’s forecast that Britain would grow by just 1.1 per cent this year.
The Lib Dem leader also defended his decision to join the Conservatives in government after the 2010 election – “a coalition forged in a time of emergency” – saying Britain needed a strong administration.
There is a long, hard road ahead. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
“Right now, our biggest concern is of course the economy. The recovery is fragile. There is a long, hard road ahead. In the last few days alone we have seen a financial storm in the eurozone.
“So we were right to pull the economy back from the brink. It is clearer now than ever that deficit reduction was essential to protect the economy, to protect homes and jobs,” he said.
Reducing the deficit was vital, but not enough, he said – which was why the government was investing in infrastructure and leaning on the banks to lend more.
Analysis on Clegg
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.
Read Political Editor Gary Gibbon's blog
“The easy thing would have been to sit on the opposition benches throwing rocks at the government as it tried to get control of the public finances. It might even, in the short run, have been more popular, but it would not have been right. At that moment, Britain needed a strong government,” Mr Clegg vowed.
“Never apologise for the difficult things we are having to do. We are serving a great country at a time of great need. There are no shortcuts, but we won’t flinch,” he added.
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander told Channel 4 News the speech was superb, adding: “He struck a realistic note. We need to stick to the plans we have set out and we need to step up our efforts in government to find ways to get growth.”
Party President Tim Farron added: “The most important thing is not the political party, it is getting out of this economic crisis.
“We have done difficult things, but they were the right things. It has not been easy for us as a party, but we are not in denial about the pasting we had in the local elections in May. We have to learn from that, but not put people’s livelihoods and jobs at risk by veering off course.”
But Mr Clegg took a different line from David Cameron on this summer’s riots, saying that many young people “seemed to have nothing to lose”, adding: “Too many of these young people had simply fallen through the cracks. Not just this summer, but many summers ago when they lost touch with their own future.”
Mr Clegg said £50m would be made available so schools so they could offer extra lessons in the summer holidays for children leaving primary school.
“We know this is a time when too many children lose their way, so this is a £50m investment to keep them all on the right path,” he said.
He took aim at Labour, saying another Labour government would have been a disaster.
The deputy prime minister launched an attack on Labour’s reliance on the trade unions, dismissing as “risible” Ed Miliband’s pledge to take on “vested interests”, saying: “Ed Miliband says he wants to loosen the ties between his party and the union barons who helped him beat his brother. Let’s see him put his money where his mouth is.
“Let’s see if he’ll support radical reform of party funding. Every previous attempt has been blocked by the vested interests in the other two parties.”
Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham, a cabinet minister in the last government, criticised Mr Clegg’s speech.
“He and his Lib Dem ministers have sacrificed their liberal tradition for personal ambition. They share the responsibility for stalling the recovery and damaging the life chances of the next generation.
“Every day of saying they will not change course is another day of helping the Tories to take Britain in the wrong direction. With growth flat-lining and unemployment rising, we need a plan B now more than ever.”