Back on the boards: Nick Clegg addresses the Lib Dems

The former Lib Dem leader has a message for his party

It wasn’t quite Banquo’s ghost before the feast, but former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg certainly made his presence count when he addressed his party’s conference this afternoon. In a fiery and at times bitter speech to his former followers, the ex-Lib Dem leader again sort to justify his party’s time in government, while subtly charting a course for his successor Tim Farron in the months and years ahead.

As a new poll out over the weekend showed, the former DPM’s standing among the general public remains at rock bottom. Yet among rank-and-file Lib Dems, the mood is different. Clegg won warm applause when he entered the hall, and was given a standing ovation when he left the stage. As Clegg himself said, the Lib Dems remain united despite their election mauling, and the party’s activists do not appear eager to renounce everything that was done in their name during coalition.

It was precisely this sentiment that Clegg sought to encourage as he addressed conference, littering his speech with references to the Lib Dems’ achievements in government. Taking the lowest earners out of income tax; greater mental health provision; free school meals – all got a mention as he implored Lib Dem members not to apologise for their party’s time in office. To underscore this, Clegg threw in a bit of flattery, comparing the Lib Dems favourably with a divided Labour Party bent on “collective self-denial”.

As with many of Clegg speeches of old, there were plenty of sharp jabs at the main opposition party in this address. While tougher on the Conservatives than he had been before, the former Deputy PM was contemptuous of Jeremy Corbyn, accusing Labour’s new leader of wanting to turn the country back to the 1970s and castigating the new Labour chief for his ambivalence towards the EU. Implicit in this was a warning to Farron not to abandon the centre ground for the sake of a political accommodation with Labour.                                                                 

Defining the centre ground – and how to hold it – was also a theme that came up several times in this speech. In an unusually reflective moment, Clegg conceded the charge he had left the political centre looking “insipid” by only talking about it in context of other parties. He went on to offer his onetime troops some ideas for how they could do a better job of exploiting a “great big liberal-sized hole” opening up in politics, particularly on the looming EU referendum. 

Indeed, it was on the debate over Britain’s place in Europe where Clegg was at his most combative, an echo of the man who stole voters’ hearts at the 2010 election. As he threw barb after barb at the anti-EU lobby, it almost sounded like he had his eyes on a new role – attack dog in the referendum expected next year. Clegg may never be the public’s golden boy ever again, but today he showed himself still more than able to perform on the big stage. Another platform may present itself before too long.   

Photograph: Stephen Williams

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