Nick Clegg has faced mixed reviews this morning, with some papers talking of a defensive performance whilst others prefer to concentrate on his growing similarity to a young Tony Blair. What is clear however is this was no victory speech to the adoring crowds.
The speech started with the now customary video montage of what the great leader had been up to over the last twelve months. There’s Nick on his holidays; him and the family on a day-trip to the Zoo; hang on a minute what is he doing on the steps of Number 10? Hasn’t he done well? Cue balloons, standing ovations and whoops of joy you would think. Far from it – you could have heard a pin drop as the hall filled with an uncomfortable silence.
And here is the problem – the Lib-Dems are a nice party. Not having to deal with the baggage of power for 6 decades does that to you. They are the most democratic party, the party whose membership are closest to the leadership and the party who take pride in thoroughly debating policy (as anyone who listened to the passionate debate about ‘lines 16 and 17 of green energy motion’ can attest to). But power, even at the best of times, doesn’t respect any of these Lib-Dem traditions, and this is not the best of times. The Lib-Dems are a junior member of a coalition government implementing eye-watering across the board spending cuts. Power in this context is about compromise – The swallowing of some pretty bitter pills (spending cuts, free schools) in order to make a little progress on your own agenda (electoral reform).
No wonder then that Clegg’s tone was muted. Following an early defeat on free-schools his job was to the steady the ship, to reach out to the party faithful and remind them he was still one of them. This time it worked – conference duly responded with a rousing standing ovation, relieved and reassured that he understood their worries. But if this is year 1, what about year 5? Or year 2 come to that? Next year, with spending cuts biting across schools and town halls up and down the country and a possible defeat in the AV referendum, what does he say then?
‘Hold your nerve’ he repeated again and again – it was unclear whether he was talking to the hall or to himself.