BRIGHTON - Nick Clegg's speech to the Lib Dem conference in Brighton to set out what is likely to be his core message to voters at the next election.
The deputy prime minister looks set to take his party into the 2015 campaign with a simple argument that he hopes will resonate, that the Lib Dems are the only party that won't kill the economy - or the vulnerable.
"Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again?" he said. "And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer?
"Because the truth is, only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted on the economy and relied upon to deliver a fairer society too."
Clegg also chided members of his party who dislike his decision to lead them into government.
"The past is gone and it isn’t coming back," he told them.
"I know that there are some in the party – some in this hall even – who, faced with several more years of spending restraint, would rather turn back than press on," he said.
"Break our deal with the Conservatives, give up on the Coalition, and present ourselves to the electorate in 2015 as a party unchanged.
"It’s an alluring prospect in some ways. Gone would be the difficult choices, the hard decisions, the necessary compromises.
"And gone too would be the vitriol and abuse, from right and left, as we work every day to keep this government anchored in the centre ground.
He added: "The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one."
Having conceded that he can not convince voters of his ideological purity any longer, Clegg is pinning his hopes on being seen as a competent leader in tough times.
"There’s a better, more meaningful future waiting for us," he said. "Not as the third party, but as one of three parties of government."
The speech was well received in the hall, with big cheers for both the news that Paddy Ashdown would be put in charge of the next election and even for Clegg's painful joke that the only way to make "make [Tory] blue go [environmentally] green you have to add [Lib Dem] yellow".
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK moments after the speech, party president Tim Farron said that Clegg had "tackled the detail that we wanted him to deal with" and also dealt with the fact the party was on a "journey" from one of opposition to a party of government.
"I thought it was great, obviously I would have said that as it's my job, but I genuinely mean it as well, it was superb," he said.
"As a country, whether you blame Labour or the banks I really don't give a monkeys, in 2010 the country was in an absolute mess, it remains a mess but its a stabilised mess," he said.
"You don't rescue the economy by accident, you do it by careful management and doing wise things, and we have done that."
And in a sign of the coordinated message about the path the party will attempt to tread between the Tories and Labour in the coming month and years, Farron added: "Part of our appeal is got to be there is only one party that is competent and makes wise decisions and doesn't make anyone's lives worse.
"But on the other hand it is a party committed to fairness and compassion and will redistribute opportunities from those that've got the most to the least well off."
Trooping out of the hall the party activists seemed satisfied and had taken the message on board.
Henry Vann, a Lib Dem councillor from Bedford, who was chosen to sit behind Clegg (and therefore in camera shot), said Clegg had "reassured" the party with his message.
"The best bit is the message that we're economically competent, so we are definitely not Labour but we are also liberal so we are definitely not Tories," he said.
He also welcomed the news that Clegg would veto any further reduction in the top rate of tax. "The tax cuts must start with the poorest the least well off and the middle class."
Of course Labour were unimpressed and despite talk that both parties have been putting out feelers to each other, Harriet Harman dismissed the speech as "pointless rhetoric".
"There's no reason why anyone should believe a word the Lib Dems say," she said. "The truth is that they have betrayed the people who voted for them and far from being a brake on the Tories, they are their accomplices."
Clegg's message worked well in the hall, but his problem might be that no one outside of it wants to listen.
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