Nick Clegg’s speech: 5 initial thoughts from me – and reaction from members and pundits

by Stephen Tall on October 8, 2014

Nick Clegg has just delivered his seventh conference speech – you can read it here. Five quick thoughts from me:

1. It’s rare to remember party leaders’ speeches. However, I’ve a feeling this one will be remembered. Not necessarily stylistically — its rhetoric or his delivery — but for a government policy announcement: the emphasis on mental health-care which Nick made a centre-piece and which he has said will be on the front page of the party’s manifesto. Yes, there were plenty of positioning soundbites. But, more importantly, this announcement demonstrated, better than any finely crafted words, the point of Lib Dems being in government: to put liberal values (tolerance, respect, fairness) into action.

2. That Nick Clegg gave this speech at all – and that it was well-received within the hall — deserves a mention. After all, just four months ago Nick Clegg was under fire from many within his party (yes, including me) following the party’s dire results in the local and European elections. Yet here he was today, closing a conference that everyone has commented upon was strikingly upbeat, and rewarded with a genuine standing ovation. That doesn’t mean everything within the party is suddenly rosy, far from it, but Nick’s buoyant performance this week is some contrast to the red-eyed, exhausted Nick of a matter of weeks ago.

3. Clegg has, undoubtedly, been helped by the Lib Dem conference following Labour and the Tories. Labour’s week was flat, Miliband’s speech a disaster for him. The Tories’ was jubilant, Cameron’s speech a triumph for him. In their different ways, they’ve helped remind Lib Dems why our party exists. For all the policy overlap we have with Labour, they just do not look like a government-in-waiting. The opposite is true of the Tories: little remaining policy overlap and all too obviously waiting to be a government free of the Lib Dems.

4. Yet there is a paradox about the Lib Dems position, or at least Nick Clegg’s. The nakedly anti-Tory positioning of senior ministers, from Clegg down, has not been faked. There is genuine scorn for the Tories’ rightward tilt – banging on about Europe, immigration and benefits again — but still there is a clear sense that Clegg would rather spend another five years disagreeing vigorously with Cameron than five years broadly agreeing with Miliband.

5. At its heart, this was a plea in favour of Lib Dems not turning their backs on being in government. Clegg made his pitch in a way cannily designed to appeal to Lib Dems’ anti-establishment instincts: “what the [Establishment] vested interests would relish most is to eject us from office before our time is up”. He feels he has grown-up through being in government; and that it’s only through being in government that parties learn how to deliver for their voters. Even if this was his last major conference speech as leader, he wants that message to resonate.

That’s what I thought – here’s what some of you thought…

And here’s what the pundits had to say…

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.