Nick Clegg has warned Liberal Democrats that voters will not "buy it for a second" if the party tries to "wash our hands" of its time in power with the Conservative Party.
With just seven months to go until the general election, the deputy prime minister told activists and MPs at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow on Wednesday that there was no use pretending they had not been key players in the government for the last five years.
"They know we’ve been in government for this parliament and we’re not suddenly going to pretend that it had nothing to do with us. I will not, no matter how much anyone goads me to do it, seek to distance us from the achievements of this government, because it would only play into the hands of those who say we should never have been in government at all," he said.
"Say what you will about the Liberal Democrats. We may no longer be untainted, as we were by the freedom of opposition. I may no longer be the fresh faced outsider. But we still stand for a different kind of politics."
There is wide degree of expectation that this will be Clegg's last conference speech as Lib Dem leader, whatever the result of the next election. There is no chance that the potential successors will try to usurp him before 7 May, instead they are waiting in the wings in the belief he will resign once the results are in.
The Lib Dems have been languishing at around 8 per cent in the polls and there is resignation in Glasgow that little can be done to change that. However due to the electoral system, the party is confident it can avoid a total wipeout. The Huffington Post understands internal party polls suggest it will cling on to 30 MPs - down from its current 57. The party is confident it will retain enough clout to be kingmakers in the event of a hung parliament.
In his speech to the party, Clegg said neither the Tories or Labour could be trusted to govern alone and that only the Lib Dems understood the values that voters wanted to see inform policy. He said: "Labour won't defend those values. Even after four years in opposition Labour have nothing to say – or have forgotten to say anything of any value on the economy. The Tories won't either. We heard all we needed to know last week: compassionate conservatism is dead and buried. If the Liberal Democrat voice is marginalised in British politics our country will be meaner, poorer and weaker as a result."
He also pleaded with voters not to judge the party solely on its broken promise not to raise tuition fees. "How will you judge us? By the one policy we couldn't deliver or by the countless policies we did deliver in government," Clegg said.
Despite Clegg's claim that his is the party of "values", the strategy of staking out the middle ground between David Cameron and Ed Miliband is high risk. Many voters may view the positioning as a shallow opportunistic move to try and stay in power no matter what. An election pitch based on the party's ability to shave the rougher edges of either the Tories or Labour may also leave the Lib Dems without an identity of their own. One Lib Dem strategist admitted the party risked looking like a "harlot", willing to jump into bed with anyone in order to remain in office.
Leading Lib Dems refuse to publicly state whether they would prefer a coalition with the Tories or Labour. However there is a feeling that the party would do better to strike a second deal with the Conservatives rather than flip to Labour. There is also a sizeable segment of the party that would prefer to shun government in favour of the backbenches, even if offered a power sharing deal.
Speaking to HuffPost following Clegg's speech, Danny Alexander, who earlier this week all but confirmed he would like to succeed Clegg as leader, said the deputy prime minister had "sent the party home with a very clear idea of what our message is and what we are trying to achieve in the next parliament". The chief secretary to the Treasury, who was personally praised by Clegg for delivering an economic recovery, said the speech was "exactly what was needed".
In his speech Clegg confirmed two policies which had been announced this morning; extra money for mental health, which the Lib Dem leader said he cared "passionately" about, and a pledge to raise the personal allowance to £11,000 in the first year of the next parliament.
The party plans to fight the next election with its key pledges on the front page of its manifesto. Those pledges are likely to inform the red lines in any coalition negotiations. Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Scottish secretary and former chief whip, told HuffPost Clegg had done a good job of setting out the priorities on which the party campaign right from now until polling day.
"A vote for the Lib Dems gets Lib Dems elected," he said. "There will be more tax cuts for people on low incomes, there will be better educational provision. There will be a prioritisation on mental health. I think that's a message which doesn't only go down well in the conference hall here, I think that will strike a chord up down the country."Suggest a correction