Not easy, but right?

(c) Alex Folkes/Fishnik Photography

Tom McGuire

‘Not easy, but right.’ These were the buzzwords in Nick Clegg’s keynote speech to end the Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham on Wednesday afternoon. They underline the determined mood that has gripped his party of late, as they visibly gain confidence with time and experience in office.

There is no hint of an apology for what has happened but there was a stark admission that ‘no matter how hard you work on the details of a policy, it’s no good if the perception is wrong.’ This does not work well for a party previously accused of being unfit for government and not ready for power, it all makes Clegg seem hugely naïve.

Elsewhere, the speech was deliberately sombre to fit the “long hard road” that lies, but remained polished, well delivered, well received and competent, if somewhat unexciting.

It was a speech designed to bring renewed confidence to the party by positioning them as not only a brake on the Tories but as a progressive force within the government. However, it has to be said that amongst the achievements mentioned the most significant were undoubtedly the defence of the NHS and the Human Rights Act (which is emphatically ‘here to stay’), rather than any actual progress. Any progress reported was referred to in the future tense, including the dubious £50 million summer school plan aimed at addressing the causes of the riots that marred the British summer.

Equally, his stance on universities as a whole seems to remain slightly misguided if he really does believe that universities will not simply swallow the extra money, but instead open their doors to the disadvantaged in a utopian egalitarian system.

This will not happen – we have already seen that universities set to charge top fees are far from exceptional, but are set to become the norm – and Clegg would do well to accept this; ‘it’s not easy, and it turns out we were wrong’ would be a better line to have taken on universities.

Clegg resisted the temptation to engage in any crowd-pleasing Tory bashing. Rather, Clegg concentrated his fire on Labour, not an overly surprising move when you consider that the vast majority of Lib Dem voters would defect to Labour instead of the Tories.

Strong points were scored against the previous Labour government as Clegg focused on Brown’s economic legacy, as well as the Labour party’s record of infatuation with media moguls and Ed Miliband’s ongoing battle with the unions.

A much less emphatic point was the brutal attack on the ‘two Eds’ as ‘backroom boys’ who were ‘always lurking in the shadows, always plotting, always scheming, never taking responsibility’ as the economy collapsed. This startling attack begs the question of what are Cameron and Osborne if not backroom boys of similar ilk? It is doubtless that this jibe will have left many delegates, who given the choice would gravitate towards Labour over the Conservatives, distinctly uncomfortable.

Rather than solidify the Lib Dem’s new confidence in government, this speech may have left them agreeing that their party’s choices of the last year have not been easy, but still questioning whether the direction they are heading in is right.

 

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