Nick Clegg's speech was supposed to be about how the Lib Dems are the modifying party. They stop the nasty Tories doing lots of nasty things, and under different circumstances, they'd stop Labour being incompetent. The text of the speech suggests that Clegg is trying to say that what the Lib Dems stand for more than anything else is better government: that is, government that doesn't do mean or incompetent things (both of which are judged by the moral compass of the junior coalition partner, of course). He closed his speech by saying:
'In the past the Liberal Democrats would eke out an existence on the margins of British politics. Now we hold the liberal centre while our opponents head left and right. I have spent my entire life watching the other two mess it up.
'We cannot stand idly by and let them do it all over again. We are the only party that can finish the job of economic recovery, but finish it fairly. The only party able to build a stronger economy and a fairer society too.
'Liberal Democrats take that message out to the country. Our mission is anchoring Britain to the centre ground. Our place is in Government again.'
This was all very well and grand, but it wasn't the most memorable part of the speech. What really stuck in the mind afterwards was Nick Clegg listing all the things his party had blocked in government: many of which are really quite popular with voters. He said:
'But sometimes compromise and agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say “no”. Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires – no. Bringing back O’ levels and a two-tier education system – no. Profit-making in schools – no. New childcare ratios – no. Firing workers at will, without any reasons given – no, absolutely not.
'Regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north – no. Scrapping housing benefit for young people – no. No to ditching the Human Rights Act. No to weakening the protections in the Equalities Act. No to closing down the debate on Trident. Had they asked us, no to those ‘go home’ poster vans.
'No to the boundary changes if you cannot deliver your side of the bargain on House of Lords reform. And if there’s one area where we’ve had to put our foot down more than any other, have a guess. Yep, the environment.
'It’s an endless battle; we’ve had to fight tooth and nail; it was the same just this week with the decision to introduce a small levy to help Britain radically cut down on plastic bags.
'They wanted to scrap Natural England, hold back green energy. They even wanted geography teachers to stop teaching children about how we can tackle climate change. No, no and no – the Liberal Democrats will keep this Government green.'
Amusingly, after that extensive list, Clegg then added that 'I don’t pretend it’s always easy to say no'. The problem is, by this point he sounded like Dr No. He could have walked out of the conference hall at the end to 'No Limit' by 2 Unlimited, just to underline how much he likes saying 'no'. And he sounded a bit like a weak Dr No to boot: saying 'had they asked us, no to those 'go home' poster vans' just made him appear weak and ignored, learning about policies as they were reported in the papers, rather than when they were being developed.
The Lib Dems do want to appear to be a moderating force. But do they really want to appear to be the modern 'No, no, no' party? Well, that depends on whether you think this conference speech had much to do with voters. It seemed to be addressed to the party, who would be very pleased indeed with that list of nos. And that's what this conference has been about: stamping Clegg's authority on the party so that he can head to the country knowing the majority of his activists support him. When he does, he'll need a better line than 'no, no, no'.