Nick Clegg’s conference speech wasn’t designed to be a barn burner. Instead, it was meant to tell the party that there’s no turning back, that they now have to become a Liberal, centrist party of government.
The Clegg camp believes that up to 3 million of the 6.8 million votes they won at the last election might be gone for good. So, the party needs to go and find new voters. They believe these are to be found in the centre ground among those who don’t want to, as he put it, to ‘trust Labour with their money again’ and have doubts about whether the ‘Tories will make Britain fairer’.
As one influential Lib Dem remarked to me earlier, this positioning would undoubtedly be the right strategy for a new political party. But whether it is correct for a party that already has a pool of voters and a whole series of preconceptions about it is another matter. But no one can say now that they don’t know where Clegg wants to take the Lib Dems.
This conference has been about two speeches, Vince Cable’s on Monday and Clegg’s today. There are subtle but substantial differences between the two. Clegg, for instance, didn’t mention the words ‘social democrat’ once. Instead, he pitched the party as a Liberal one. By contrast, Cable declared that ‘We fight for liberal and social democratic principles just as strongly inside government as out.’ The differences between these two visions will have to be resolved before the next election.