Lib Dem conference 2013: Clegg shows his strength

Lib Dem conference 2013: Clegg shows his strength

This year’s Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow saw Nick Clegg looking to navigate probably the last danger zone before the party gears up for the General Election. He will almost certainly emerge content that he has done so.

The two big risks were the emergence from the floor of positions which the media could characterise as out of touch or a threat to the leadership. On both fronts, journalists who headed to Glasgow hoping for the easy copy of a policy process played out in public were left disappointed.

There was little evidence of the debate topics which have tended to make conference an object of easy mockery in the past. More importantly, key votes in the hall on issues such as Trident or the 45p versus 50p tax rate, both of which threatened to embarrass the leadership, failed to deliver the expected fireworks.

The tax rate vote, won by just 4 votes, represented the toughest fight of conference for the leadership, but made a strong statement about the way in which Nick Clegg has managed to win the support of a membership who clearly has no desire to give their leader a bloody nose.

The next Liberal Democrat manifesto is likely to represent a programme of pragmatic, deliverable measures rather than the broad brush wish list of previous elections.

The way in which a number of Liberal Democrat policy ‘red lines’ have quietly been allowed to blur reflects how the policy making process is being shaped around the idea of the party being back in government.

As for threats to the leadership, Matthew Oakeshott’s proclamations of doom and the maverick tendencies of Vince Cable were also largely met with a roll of the eyes.

Mr Clegg’s bullish leader’s speech reflected a Liberal Democrat conference in which he has emerged emboldened by the backing of his members and secure in his position.

Many members still have significant sympathy with efforts to block changes to previously totemic Liberal Democrat policies. Yet this relative harmony is a reflection of how Liberal Democrats now see themselves and their leader.

Looking forward to 2015, he has sought to position the Liberal Democrats as a party who can now be trusted to make the tough decisions necessary of government, casting himself as the rock upon which the coalition has been built.

Mr Clegg has been smart in making a virtue of his sometimes prickly relationship with the party faithful. They might not love him, but there is a loyalty based on admiration for his undoubted leadership qualities and his resilience in the line of fire.

The challenge for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats now is to persuade the public to approach the next general election with the same level of pragmatism.

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