UK Politics

Nick Clegg: Liberal Democrats 'here to stay'

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Media captionNick Clegg: "It is because of that resilience that we will defy the odds and win again this May"

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has told activists the party is "here to stay" and will defy poor poll predictions in the general election.

In his keynote speech at the spring conference in Liverpool, the deputy prime minister said the Lib Dems would do "much better than anyone thinks".

The party "can and will win" in areas where it mounts a strong campaign.

He accused his coalition partners the Conservatives and Labour of "deserting the centre ground".

He warned against allowing a "rag tag mob" of MPs from UKIP or the SNP to hold the balance of power after the general election, insisting the Lib Dems were the only party capable of standing up for the "moderate majority" in government.

Attempting to rally the Lib Dem troops ahead of the general election campaign, he urged members to be proud of the party's record in coalition government.

"It is because of our resilience that we have been able to achieve incredible things. And it is because of that resilience that we will defy the odds and win again this May.

"So when people tell you we can't, tell them where to go. I have a message for all those who are writing us off once again: the Liberal Democrats are here to stay."

'Tarnished by coalition'

The BBC's political correspondent Ross Hawkins said Mr Clegg and his colleagues were reassuring themselves that internal polls suggested the party was better placed than it appeared in the published data.

However, former Lib Dem president Tim Farron said he believed the party could suffer for a generation as a result of the decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives.

Analysis by BBC Political Correspondent Ross Hawkins

Image copyright Jeff J Mitchell
Image caption Former Lib Dem party president Tim Farron said the party had been "tarnished" by coalition with the Tories

Several MPs have told me there is an unspoken assumption that Nick Clegg will stand down as Liberal Democrat leader in the next Parliament - whatever the result in May.

While Lib Dems are fighting for their political lives in constituencies, they are thinking hard about life after Clegg.

Their leader's career could end with defeat in his Sheffield Hallam seat, of course, or in resignation after a terrible election performance.

But even if he manages to prove the polls wrong - as he insists is possible - it would be very natural for him to stand down in 2017, one senior MP says.

It is widely thought he has not asked his wife Miriam to endure more than two general elections, another insists.

Clegg's aides dismiss such talk - he intends to be the leader through the whole of the next Parliament, they say.

That is not what plenty of his colleagues expect though, and several are positioning themselves to fight to replace him.

Read Ross's full analysis here.

Mr Farron told the Mail on Sunday: "In 2010, many people said, 'I am not voting for you because of the (1970s) Lib-Lab pact,' when I was seven years old."

"Just think what going into coalition with the Tories will do to our brand over the next generation."

Mr Farron and Lib Dem sources insisted that this was not a new a new quote.

But the party's former leader, Lord Ashdown slapped Mr Farron down, telling BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics: "Tim's a very able guy but at the moment judgement is not his strong suit."

'Tories cut'

Mr Clegg told the crowd that one of his proudest moments was the publication of primary school results last year showing the poorest children getting their best ever results.

He put that down to the Lib Dems' decision to protect the schools budget in real terms and create the Pupil Premium - money targeted at the poorest children.

The deputy prime minister has also used the conference to announce a £1.25bn boost in funding for child and adolescent mental health services.

He told activists Labour and the Conservatives were "deserting the centre ground" while UKIP offered only "angry nationalism".

Only the Lib Dems would stand up for the "moderate majority" amid a political mood of "blame and division", he said.

"We will face down the nationalists and isolationists who seek to divide our society."

Mr Clegg accused his coalition partners of planning for an "ideological lurch to the right" in the next Parliament: "Cows moo. Dogs bark. And Tories cut. It's in their DNA."

Only the Liberal Democrats would "keep Britain on track", he added.

Budget claim

Appealing to wavering voters, Mr Clegg said: "If you are thinking of voting Conservative but are worried that they won't be fair - don't do it. If you are thinking of voting Labour but are worried they will ruin the economy - don't do it.

"If you think a vote for UKIP, or the Greens, or the SNP is harmless - it isn't."

Mr Clegg said the final significant decisions of the current coalition government had already been taken, with negotiations over Wednesday's Budget almost finalised.

He indicated that he had pressed for a further rise in the income tax personal allowance.

"More than 26 million people on low-and-middle incomes have had their income tax cut every year, worth more than £800 from next month," said the deputy prime minister.

"And more than three million of the lowest paid workers are no longer paying any income tax at all.

"And I want to go further - much further - in next week's budget to cut taxes for ordinary people again."

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