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Clegg's Balancing Act - The two Sides of Nick

Posted: 21/09/11 17:48

Two Nicks addressed the ICC in Birmingham today. The Deputy PM and the party leader.

The party leader was the apologist. Conceding the errors made over the communications strategy around tuition fees rises, for the poor election results in May and for the lost referendum on voting reform. The anti-establishment liberal, railing against the state that has let people down - that has failed to deliver equality of opportunity for young people.

Then there was the deputy prime minister. The establishment man - the leader who took the party into coalition with the Conservatives. The man who refuses to play politics with jobs or the economy. The Deputy PM who is holding his nerve - who is suffering personally, whose party is suffering, who is being forced to apologise to his own supporters - but who is undaunted by the task ahead.

Not an easy balancing act.

His job today was to be the Deputy Prime Minister before the party leader. He failed. He retreated into his and his party's natural comfort zone. The speech was designed to win the hall not the living room.

He dwelled for long periods on the things that warm the hearts of members. On constitutional reform, for example, he reminded members that his party was not one in hoc to the union barons or media moguls. He was admirably impassioned by about the great social issues; he reminded his audience that there are more black men in prisons than university: terrible, appalling statistics. But we have heard them before, and right now he has to reach out to beyond the core liberal base.

Will these terrible truths win the sceptics around? No. Perhaps it is a legitimate strategy of the party - winning over the party before they attempt to win over the country.

On improving fairness - another one of the party's central founding aims his appeals were to the hall, not the living room. But even the clap lines were a little weak. "I will not rest until every child is free to rise".

But floating voters did not see a man of steel and of passion - unapologetically defending the key decisions the party has taken to reduce the deficit. Instead, it was on constitutional reform that he became most animated and impassioned, rather than on the economy.

As we face a difficult few years Nick Clegg has to show his steely nerve and resolve in the face of more riots, union protests and the squeezed middle, getting even more squeezed. People need to know that when it comes to jobs and growth that the party is taking difficult decisions and believes in those decisions. Because if and when the economy turns around - whilst he may not get credit for the key policy decisions which will go to Cameron and Osborne - he will be credited with keeping faith with a decision that threatened to split the party and saw it languishing on 9% in the polls. He can be the heart of the coalition, the Tories the head.

As Ming Campbell said after the speech - Nick was 'defiant about liberal values'. Precisely. The number one concern for most people is the economy and it did not feature nearly prominently enough.

Delegates will go away from Birmingham happy and pacified. Their leader told them what they needed to hear. It was an opportunity missed.

 

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