UK Politics

Lib Dem conference: Clegg keeps it lean

Nick Clegg conference speech
Image caption There was no talk of sunlit uplands from the Lib Dem leader

Nick Clegg took the stage at the end of a conference which has gone better than many expected.

But that is little comfort to Lib Dem ministers given the sense of impending doom over the economy.

The party leader's conference speech is always intended for two audiences -- the party faithful in the hall and the voters outside.

Today Nick Clegg knew he also had to keep in mind the jittery markets looking for any hints of uncertainty over the coalition or its economic plans.

So his key message was that there would be no going back on the decision to go into government and no wavering from the deficit reduction plan, declaring "You don't play politics at a time of national crisis. You don't play politics with the economy".

So what about reports that ministers are discussing whether they could spend an extra £5bn on infrastructure projects to boost growth?

The deputy prime minister told the conference "we need to do more, we can do more, and we will do more for growth and for jobs."

'Enough digs'

But even before he'd delivered his speech, aides were denying this was a hint at additional money, insisting that nothing in the speech would change the overall spending plans.

The problem for Nick Clegg is that his audience is left to wonder where the growth will come from.

Wait for the Growth Strategy in November we are told.

Image caption Miriam Clegg opted for a frugal High Street dress

There was a notable lack of any Tory-bashing from the Lib Dem leader, after a week when other senior party figures have seized on the licence of conference season to take a swipe at their coalition partners.

Mr Clegg's aides said we had heard "more than enough digs at the Tories" already.

But Nick Clegg did highlight his party's differences and flag up his readiness to do battle on some red-line issues.

His declaration that the Human Rights Act is here to stay will infuriate some Tories and the right-wing press.

He did not hold back though, in his attack on Labour, led by what he called "Gordon Brown's backroom boys" - a swipe at the two Eds, Miliband and Balls.

His warning "never, ever trust Labour with our economy again" will disappoint those in his party who are keen to keep the door open to the possibility of a coalition with Labour in the future.

This was a lean speech for lean times, with few personal anecdotes or lofty ambitions.

Dire warnings

There was little new policy either.

In a city still scarred by the summer riots, he said he wants to do more to help young people who have "fallen through the cracks" and feel their own futures have no value.

But his only new announcement was a network of summer schools to help struggling pupils move on to secondary school. The cost was just £50m.

The deputy prime minister had little to offer party members bruised by their defeat in the AV referendum, the loss of more than 700 councillors in May and dire poll ratings.

There was no promise of sunny uplands ahead. Such talk would, of course, have jarred given the national mood.

Mr Clegg's glamorous Spanish wife Miriam chose a suitably frugal High Street dress and jacket for the occasion.

He did though go out of his way to praise his party for their resilience and grace under fire.

The Lib Dem leadership will be relieved at the lack of any significant rebellion this week.

If anything the economic crisis has underlined the need for unity.

The Lib Dems know how much is at stake - for their party as well as the country.

In a conference week peppered with dire warnings, the party's former Treasury spokesman Lord Oakeshott suggested that if the economy does not improve by the time of the next election, the government and the Lib Dems could be "slaughtered".

But Nick Clegg knows he has no choice but to stay the course, hope the economy picks up by the time of the next election and that voters will reward his party for acting in the national interest.