Nick Clegg, wearing a yellow tie and a determined expression, appeared in Westminster this morning tolay out his vision for his party and their continued contribution to the coalition.
Sitting in the room, it was easy to get the sense that this is the speech Clegg had been wanting to make for a good few years. Although it was 5 years today that he narrowly beat Chris Huhne to the party leadership, Clegg used the platform today to look to the future.
The Deputy Prime Minister declared that the country must be governed from the centre ground, and that his was the party to do it.
Clegg said that the Lib Dems had “moved to the centre ground” as part of the growing up process of governing. Many of his critics will see this as an admission
of taking the party to the right, he argues that he is moving beyond the “comfort and irrelevan
ce of opposition”. Perhaps slightly oddly, he commented on this movement after saying that his is a “party rooted in the centre ground,” and further commenting that unlike the Conservatives and Labour “we are not centre ground tourists”. Clegg believes that liberalism is an ideology of the centre, and that is where he wants the liberal party to stay.
He is going to have a battle in his own party in order to achieve that.
Much of the speech was given over to welfare reform. Clegg didn’t stray from the government line, instead he gave a liberal defence of the universal credit. He wants to help sick people be able to get back to work, to make work pay, while at the same time protecting the vulnerable. He even went as far as to say:
“The Liberal Democrats are now the party of welfare reform.”
Iain Duncan Smith will be delighted…
Much of the political fire was aimed at Labour. Nick Clegg declared that the welfare system they had left was so badly designed that it was a “social duty” to reform it. However, he did also reveal some areas where he had stood firm, for example have £10bn worth of welfare cuts, and cutting child benefit for families with more than two children.
Clegg also said he would look at universal benefits for wealthy pensioners.
Overall it was a powerful speech from Nick Clegg, one that clearly marked his territory as Lib Dem leader.The only real moment of dissapointment came when he dodged a question about secret courts, which he must kill if liberalism in government is going to mean much at all.
Afterwards, an aide told me that there was more to come on this centrist and differentiating agenda.
It looks like Nick Clegg is not prepared to go down without a fight.