“We haven’t changed our liberal values,” he said - and then went on justifying Conservative policies in a classic liberal context. And he did it so much better than many Tories have been able to. Take the case for cuts: nothing fair about asking the next generation to pick up the bill. Pupils should choose schools, not schools choosing pupils: Milton Friedman couldn’t have put it better. Taking people out of tax: 900,000 of them by next April. Because money is best spent by the people who earn it.
I particularly liked how he compared his financial axework with what Liberal Democrat councillors have to do when they take on councils from Labour. Such councillors, he says, “know what it’s like to pick up the pieces when Labour spend a community dry.” Now, this idea that LibDem councillors are bastions of fiscal probity is a new one to me. Many Tories know what it’s like cleaning up after Lib Dems. But Clegg is congratulating the party for something that he wants them to do, but suspects they don’t want to do - a tactic which which any parent will be familiar.
Besides, the shift in language is significant in itself: under the Brown years, even Tories ended up referring “investment” rather than spending. Clegg puts it in terms of simple fiscal vandalism. His new vocabulary involves mentions of debt interest: the first time I imagine it has ever been mentioned on a Lib Dem conference floor.
Clegg crowd-pleasers were all in fairly harmless areas. It doesn't really matter if he thinks the Iraq war was illegal. Cracking down on tax evasion has been a mission of government leaders since medieval days. I do hope that HMRC will tell him that the manner of tax authorities is as important as the tax rate - if they start going after richer taxpayers like fraud suspects, it will make them that much more minded to live abroad. And Clegg's reference to “our friends in Europe” is not a phrase you’ll hear at the Tory conference - but whether friend or foe, Britain is still (alas) obliged to comply with EU directives. Clegg does so happily, Tories grudgingly. Neither are (yet) in a position to do anything about it.
There was a double dose of Labour bashing, due to the lack of Tory bashing (although he tried it in code - about “entire communities being hollowed out” in the 1980s). And he attacked them for the type of profligacy and fantasy economics that were being cheered on by his party for most of the last ten years. As he knew. The subtext was “hold your nerve, comrades” - and they will, for now. But this time next year, the cuts will be kicking in, Clegg may have lost the AV referendum and seen his party decimated in Scotland. As he knows, this year was the warm-up. Next year is when the real test will come.
This was a far cry from the best speech given, even by Lib Dem standards. They won’t be mixing it to disco music, as Obama’s supporters did with his speeches in 2008. Clegg’s Iraq point was irritating, his anti-Thather coded attack petty. But I can forgive him for this. He stood in front of a conference of spendthrifts, and made the case for cuts. As I argued yesterday, Clegg is flaky where it doesn’t matter - and sound where it does. And this week, it’s pretty clear, he has taken his party with him.