On Wednesday, Nick Clegg will deliver his sixth conference speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats and his third as Deputy Prime Minister.
The content of his five previous speeches tells us much about Mr Clegg’s leadership style and the challenges he faces. The most obvious difference across 2008 to 2012 is the shift from idealism to pragmatism.
Mr Clegg’s pre-Coalition speeches dwell on his Liberal Democrat vision of Britain – a place of freedom, tolerance and social mobility, with a moral dimension to Government. Foreign policy for example should be practised “on the principles of justice” not “who’s got the fuel”.
By 2011 the challenge was more about holding the party together. Where twelve months previously Clegg had determinedly told the party to “hold its nerve” and “be the agent of change” in Government, he now rather sorrowfully acknowledged at length the “agonisingly difficult decisions” that Coalition had brought.
The disciplines of being in Government have similarly constrained the party leader’s approach to policy. Some of the early post-Coalition material now looks rather optimistic and in 2011 and 2012 Mr Clegg was reduced to explaining patiently to his party that there are no easy solutions to problems, particularly economic ones.
Mr Clegg now called on the party to accept the journey from “the comforts of opposition to the hard realities of government” – Lib Dems needed, he told delegates, to prove to the public that the party has the capacity to rule.
The third party will always strive to find a unique role in UK politics, and each year Mr Clegg looks to his speech to outline that role. But coalition makes this a more delicate operation and much will be made this year of how Clegg refers to his potential future partners.
Before the 2010 election, the Lib Dems were very consistent in their view. An exhausted Labour had failed in Government, Mr Clegg told conference in 2009, while the born-to-rule Tories lacked substance. Two years later Clegg’s strident declaration that we can “never, ever trust Labour with our economy again” attracted the most attention, but he was equally keen to put clear water between him and the Tories on issues such as the Human Rights Act.
This year’s speech is more likely to be in the style of 2012. In a speech heavy on metaphors – from sports to the battlefield to that political favourite, the journey – Clegg geared the party members up for the slog of election campaigning as “one of three parties of government”. He alluded to the press attention on whether they would be courting Labour or the Tories more but left the decision in the hands of voters.
His challenge on Wednesday is to provide the party with confidence, provide voters with a positive reason to vote Lib Dem, and provide the other parties with the prospect of a tough but deliverable negotiation. This is quite a lot to pull off in one speech. Mr Clegg will want to be at his best.
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